Lessons for Blair from the War of Little Joe

The furore over Harriet Harman's choice of school for her son harmed Labour's leader and exposed weaknesses in his education policy
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The five worst days in Tony Blair's leadership of the Labour Party ended yesterday with what was, by all accounts, a sparkling speech to his seething parliamentary party. As they spilled out into the Commons corridor, their faces were not happy and their private views about Harriet Harman were unchanged; but almost every lip was buttoned. The War of Little Joe seemed over.

Even if that is so, however, it has ended with a bloody, pyrrhic victory for the leadership. The damage has been serious and will reverberate throughout the year. Labour's poll rating will surely slip at an important moment. When the general election comes, my guess is that Labour candidates will lose seats they might otherwise have won because of this.

The gap between old and new Labour has widened. Despite Blair's huge personal authority, he cannot afford many more episodes like this. When he demands self-sacrifice in the cause of victory, there will be resentful mutterings about his own front bench. Joe Harman's education may be free at point of use; but it will cost the Labour Party quite a bit.

Choice in schooling is not like European monetary union, nor the West Lothian question, or most other bits of political arcana. It has chat- power. It is something that everyone can understand and that many people are emotional about.

Some voters will turn against Labour, not because of the charge that the Harman family has been hypocritical, but because the reaction of Labour MPs has chilled them a little. It suggests to some that the old Labour Party, so enthusiastic about stopping people doing things, determined to build a better world on a mound of prohibitions, is back. Certainly, the rage of many Labour MPs about Harman's choice has not been pretty. Too many have made it clear that they think she is a selfish middle-class southern woman of a kind that should be expropriated and preferably extirpated, too. As one senior figure put it: "I wouldn't p*** on her if she was on fire." This is not, to put it mildly, the way to woo Middle Britain.

Other voters, though probably fewer, will turn away from Labour because of the charge that Harman is a hypocrite. I think she is. But I think she is no more of a hypocrite than Andrew Marr - or even, just possibly, the average reader of this column.

Daily life is an endless series of compromises between the world as it is and the world as we would like it to be. For anyone with principles, hypocrisy is a universal sin. We sit snugly in our cars whining about pollution and congestion. We complain about underfunded this or that but do not offer the voluntary extra taxes that smiling Conservatives remind us the Treasury would accept. We prefer not to know too much about the short lives of the animals we eat.

Oh yes, and many of us praise the virtues of comprehensive education while avoiding the nearest comprehensive for our children. If I was living where Harman lives and had a child who got a place at St Olave's, I would jump at the chance. But then, as the picture byline will confirm, I am not Harman. Doesn't the fact of her being a Labour front-bencher change things? Doesn't it make things worse?

She is not enjoying a privilege for her own family that she would take away from other people's if she got into power. St Olave's would almost certainly still exist as a selective grammar school after a decade of Labour government because, despite David Blunkett's "read my lips" denunciation of selection at the party conference, the party has decided to keep selective grammar schools where that is what the local voters want.

Harman's hypocrisy certainly is not of that gold-plated, triple-A variety. The problem is rather that Labour MPs maintain that selection is bad for everyone and that comprehensives are good - not just for society, but for all children. And the Harman-Dromeys, like many other parents, clearly do not believe it. There is a gap, in short, between Labour policy and the prejudices of millions of people. The problem for the pro-comprehensive majority in the Labour Party is that it cannot achieve its stated aim. It will not take on the vocal power of the grammar school lobby. And it cannot take on the private schools because Britain subscribes to international obligations setting out the right to choose an independent education.

So enough of the middle classes exclude themselves, paying through private school fees or higher mortgages to ensure that "comprehensives" are really "partials", particularly in the inner cities. Labour is well aware of this but has no plausible answer. Moral exhortation is useless. If Labour MPs will not be exhorted, precious few other people will feel any obligation. Labour hopes that extra spending and a change in ethos will improve the state schools. Which is fine; except that it will not promise extra spending.

The Conservatives gleefully claim it all as a vindication of their school reforms. But the truth is that government policy is equally muddled. For most parents, the "choice" at the core of Tory policy is a big lie. Selection of pupils by schools and the tough squeeze on extra places are destroying what little choice is left in the system.

The Tories have become the defenders of socially divided education without actually having the courage to say so. Conservative MPs claim their intention is to create "excellent" state schools, yet few would dream of sending their children to them.

The disastrous truth which the Harman case should ram home to every thinking voter is that with both big parties proclaiming education to be their priority and the election looming, neither has a plausible or intellectually credible policy for state schooling.

In defending Harman, Blair acted characteristically by putting his own position so publicly on the line. He is loyal to his friends and self- certain to the point of rashness. Now, though, he needs to move on from defending a friend to rethinking the policy. In a few days' time he is due to make a major speech on social issues. He should rip it up and try, instead, a speech which confronts honestly and thoughtfully the real dilemmas of schooling in Britain.

If so, he could and should give indications of alternative ways forward. There are some. A voucher system, for instance, could be heavily biased in favour of low-income families so that the daughter of a single parent on welfare would get a voucher worth, say, five times as much as a middle- class child. This would blur the gnarled and class-bound lines which scar British education, and state funding would flow to where it was needed most. Schools in deprived areas or specialising in lower achievers would be able to afford to buy in specialist teachers on high salaries.

This episode has been too bad for Labour to talk of silver linings. For the party there are none; during the past few days all its old vices have been on show. But if he encouraged Blair to think again about schools, the rest of us could yet have cause to raise a glass to Little Joe, whose politician parents behaved like parents - and not like politicians.