In Blair's Britain, everyone is included - even the outcasts

New Labour has found a way to cast its net over just about everyone. And why not?
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The Independent Online
IT HAD to come. This Government is so damned inclusive, that it would only be a matter of time before it was caught locked in embrace with some of Labour's traditional enemies. The first signs came with the rash of business appointments to government jobs - Lord Simons, for example. Then Sports Minister Tony Banks brought in his old Tory sparring partner David Mellor to speak up for football fans. Those who stalk the corridors of Downing Street and Millbank tell me that you can hardly go for a pee without running into Liberal Democrats taking a break from the latest joint committee on constitutional reform. Ministers even turned up on the Countryside March, which was called to lambast the Government for letting down rural voters. And the Prime Minister has generously donated some of his old speeches and ideas to the Leader of the Opposition for use in foreign parts.

Now ministers are drawing the consumers of public services into their embrace. It will not endear them to the professional middle classes, whose ardour for New Labour is cooling faster than that of a dog doused in a bucket of cold water. The sight of Health Secretary Frank Dobson's porters on Health Authorities, will put the wind up the consultants. Those in the high arts are increasingly irritated by the Government's love affair with the visigoths from the design, fashion and music industries.

But it is Education Secretary David Blunkett who is perhaps breaching the most profound taboo. He is backing efforts to ask children their opinions about their schools. This should send a shudder through the teaching profession. It is not a tightly-controlled New Labour exercise in which a few budding Tony Blairs are asked to read their best essay about "My School" to their adoring parents and indulgent teachers; this is something else altogether, and it comes from a most unexpected source of new and innovative ideas: two trades unions.

The public sector union Unison and its partner the National Association of Social Workers in Education have published a survey showing that up to half a million pupils a day are involved in truancy, and some 80,000 hardly ever turn up to classes at all. The police say that these are the kids who then do drugs and petty crime, and cause serious headaches all round. I will leave aside the question of what their parents are doing whilst all this is going on and concentrate on what the schools might do. Almost every effort has been unsuccessful - sin bins, punishments of various kinds, exclusion. So where should we look for new answers?

The unions have done the obvious thing - which sometimes is the right thing: they are asking the culprits to advise on the problem. They have set up children's panels made up of persistent truants to talk about what would bring them back to the classroom. Inevitably, at their first meetings, the children emphasized their boredom in class. More interestingly however, they pointed to favouritism by teachers, and claimed that a later start to the school day might be more palatable. Anybody who can remember their own teenage years will give a silent nod of recognition on both fronts.

Who knows where the exercise will go? But you do not have to embrace the whole Blairite project to grasp the value of the poacher turned gamekeeper. The police now use "former" burglars to advise on their efforts in crime prevention; one such told me a couple of years ago that he was making a better living showing the police his methods than clambering through windows.Others have traded in their burglars' balaclavas for contracts with motor manufacturers and insurance companies desperate to find ways of reducing the nation's soaring autocrime figures.

The children's panels show us how we might go even further. Why should those who contribute to solutions have to be reformed at all? Might we not learn more from the unreconstructed wicked? After all, even priests spend time studying the works of Lucifer.

For example, I wonder what the Equal Opportunities Commission would make of the appointment of Peter Stringfellow, who probably knows more about sexism than any other Briton alive. Might the Commission for Racial Equality benefit from the advice of National Front veterans like John Bean? Would Jo Brand - smoker and drinker - be the right sort of medicine for a Health Authority? It is certainly time that Kelvin Mackenzie, the guru of modern tabloid journalism found his way on to the Press Complaints Commission; and I would personally campaign for Germaine Greer to be appointed to the Chair of the English Cricket Board today.

In the political sphere the possibilities seem endless. Perhaps when Robin Cook is pondering his next appointment to the European Commission, Teresa Gorman, who seems unnaturally quiet at present, should be given something useful to do in Brussels. Lord Irvine is building a reputation as a man who knows a thing or two about extravagant spending on the public purse; might the next reshuffle take him to the Social Security department with a special brief to ensure that we get value for money? And shouldn't the Chancellor be actively searching out Mr Ken Livingstone for the Treasury team, perhaps to help the Paymaster-General in his work in devising a fairer tax regime? This would be inclusiveness on flame.

Perhaps this is all a little too imaginative. If so, we could begin slowly, and simply start to think of opening some new political dialogues. There are still relatively few places where people from different parts of the political spectrum can talk to each other without the need to draw imaginary lines between themselves. This makes politics petty and dull; it also obscures the real divisions in our society - between urban and rural, between young and old, between secular and religious. I doubt if we need any new think tanks or forums; but we certainly need those that exist to begin to engage more with their traditional enemies. A modern political society cannot afford a dialogue of the deaf. We will know something is stirring when the rightist intellectual David Willetts is asked to serve on the board of a left-leaning think tank, or Peter Lilley addresses a TUC economic conference.

One example of a poacher turned gamekeeper who has brought home the bacon is on display in the Caribbean, where on the first day to the current Test the West Indies put our team on the rack yet again. Several of the England party could have qualified to play for the West Indies by virtue of having Caribbean parents. With a humiliating first innings looming, it was Mark Ramprakash, the Middlesex captain, and a Londoner of Guyanese extraction, who came to the rescue with yet another outstanding performance. Thank God he's on our side, not theirs.