profile David Blunkett : In there to cause a stir Paul Routledge on the man who is seen as the bridge across Labour's internal di vide

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HE IS the nearest thing to the "battered cherub" image of the populist miners' leader Joe Gormley, but with a curly beard as well as the reassuring smile. He is blind, but so well-informed, so aware of what is going on around him that some people find ithard to believe. David Blunkett is the kind of politician you want to be telling the truth.

But speaking out plainly is often the wrong thing to do in politics. In his native Yorkshire last week, the local newspaper bills shouted "Blunkett Future in Doubt". The Shadow Education Secretary had hinted that Labour might impose VAT on private schoolfees. Tony Blair slapped him down in a New Year's Day long-distance telephone call, and he was compelled to recant within hours on live radio. Less self-assured politicians might have retired to lick their wounds. But Blunkett insists: "I will con tinueto be controversial. I cannot do it any other way."

He likes stirring things up. That, presumably, was why, 10 weeks ago, Blair asked him to take over from Ann Taylor, who had failed to shine even against the lugubrious, disgraced John Patten. The Labour leader told Blunkett he wanted education to have a higher profile. But this high?

Blunkett's error was to stray into taxation, which is Gordon Brown's holy ground. Blair and his Shadow Chancellor are adamant that Shadow Cabinet members cannot even answer journalists' speculative questions on the subject without prior clearance. They argue that VAT - "the Tory tax" - is particularly dangerous territory because Labour is opposed in principle to it, and keen to make capital out of Kenneth Clarke's stated preference for extending it.

For a man with almost a decade of experience in running Sheffield's multimillion pound budget, such a regime must be something of a political straitjacket. "I am not a cabbage," Blunkett says. "I have to do it the way I think best, and that is high profile and that is what Tony Blair asked me to do."

NOTHING in David Blunkett's origins prepared him for high office, except his own determination of spirit. The Blunketts were agricultural labourers in Surrey who migrated to Lincolnshire in the 1890s. David's father, Arthur, moved to Sheffield in the 1920s searching for work. He found it in the gas industry, where he became a foreman. He married, for the second time, in 1945, and the couple's only child was born in June 1947.

David was blind at birth, a victim of "genetic incompatibilities". The shock turned his mother, Doris, white overnight. Fortunately, the city had a school for the blind, but the family suffered a second blow when the young Blunkett was only 12. His father fell into a vat of scalding water at work, lingered in terrible pain for a month, and then died.

"It was brought home to me very severely indeed that the world was an extremely unfair place," Blunkett said later. "My mum spent two years desperately trying to get some compensation, during which time we literally on occasions had just bread and dripping in the house."

Fifties Sheffield was still a stranger to the dependency culture. "Part of my upbringing was against the background of the Methodist Church which was very much a community that didn't suffer fools gladly and which wanted to ensure that people did have a fair deal, but gave quite short shrift to those that didn't help themselves. There was a lot of help but not a lot of woolly-minded benevolence which you tend to get from those who have never suffered deprivation."

Young David set about compensating for his blindness by developing his other faculties. He was an avid radio listener and was "much more serious as a child and teenager than other people, probably missing out on a bit of fun". At 16, while still a pupil at the Royal Normal College for the Blind at Shrewsbury, he joined the Labour Party out of "a deep sense of the injustice I could see". He frequently uses this expression - of "seeing" - which patently he cannot, but friends find nothing unusual in this.Clive Betts, a fellow Sheffield MP who was also a city councillor with him, observes: "People who work with him don't think of him as being blind."

Once, canvassing in one of the many tower blocks in his Sheffield Brightside constituency, he turned to his guide and said: "Haven't we done this block before?" They had.

His teachers clearly thought his prospects were limited. When the time came for him to leave the Royal Normal College, he was offered training to become a piano tuner or a lathe operator in a sheltered workshop. He opted instead for a commercial course in Braille typing and shorthand, and he went to night school to take O and A levels, first in Shrewsbury and then while working as a clerk in Sheffield. At 22 he got a place at Sheffield University, studying politics under Professor Bernard Crick.

During lectures, Blunkett's guide dog, Ruby, used to bark every time Crick mentioned Marx. Crick tried referring to "the German doctor", but Ruby still barked. He later discovered that students sitting behind Blunkett in the tiered lecture hall were stamping on the dog's tail.

Blunkett's Labour Party career had already begun. While still a student, he became the youngest member of Sheffield City Council. By 1978, after he had qualified as a further education teacher, he was only one vote away from winning the nomination for the textile-cum-mining Pennine constituency of Penistone. Later, Blunkett went on to become leader of the city council. He had arrived on the political scene as "an angry young man on the right" but shifted to the left in light of his studies and experience on the council . His cheap bus fares policy in what was described as the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire was hugely successful, and was copied in the capital by Ken Livingstone.

Blunkett became the darling of the constituencies, winning a place on the party's national executive in 1983, the first non-MP to do so since Harold Laski 40 years previously. A fervent unilateralist, he was none the less seen as a useful ball-bearing between the hard left and right-wing loyalists. He became an MP in the 1987 general election, for the ultra-safe Sheffield Brightside seat. The following year was a harrowing one of illness and separation (eventually divorce) from his wife Ruth and their t hree sons, but the following year he bounced back as the most articulate critic of the poll tax and was made assistant spokes-man on local government affairs. He finally made it to John Smith's Shadow Cabinet, as health spokes-man, in June 1992 - despite having been campaign manager in Bryan Gould's unsuccessful bid for the leadership. The party chairmanship followed, during which he made the historic announcement of Labour's first one member, one vote leadership election.

Blunkett has never easily been pigeonholed: hopelessly radical on nuclear weapons, seriously old-fashioned on the homosexual age of consent, voting for 18 rather than 16. Crick sees him as a human bridge across Labour's internal political gulf: "He holdsan important role between the two wings of the party. He is a realist, but he has also got the conscience of the old left."

Disability, perhaps, helps him in that respect - anybody who has overcome his handicaps is bound to command respect, if nothing else. Yet, given the quantity of paper that modern politics generates, it cannot be an advantage in any other way. "I have occasionally felt frustration because of my lack of sight," he admits. "I have to put in a great deal more time reading and dealing with the avalanche of correspondence." He works extremely hard, sitting up half the night listening to tapes of documents. Bu t he can also be stroppy. As a young councillor, he concedes, he was "a bit bumptious". Even friends agree that he has not entirely lost that side of his nature, though some put it down to a sightless man overcompensating for his disability.

On television, where the blindness is not obvious, he seems austere, cold, even arrogant. His certainties come over as those of an old-fashioned, hell-fire preacher. In private, he is warmer, more humorous, a man with a knowledge of and a keen interest in wine. His political strength, in a party that is increasingly accused of being middle class and metropolitan, is his feel for what ordinary Labour voters might be thinking, particularly outside London.

In the short time since he began shadowing Gillian Shephard, Blunkett has won general approval. His espousal of school league tables, but in a more informative "value-added" form, drew applause even from the Daily Telegraph.

But the self-styled "modernist with deep socialist convictions" has had to take a lot of the flak generated by Blair's decision to send his son Euan to the grant-maintained Oratory school in south-west London. Though this must have been a strong personaldisappointment to him, he has kept a stiff upper lip on the subject. But it does make his task of devising a new "framework of accountability" for opted-out schools within local government that much harder.

There is a further anxiety. Like other senior party figures, Blunkett fears the oblique impact of the leader's personal educational preference on party opinion in the run-up to the conference to abolish Clause IV at the end of April. It no longer looks like the Blair walkover predicted only a month ago, and the Labour leader may yet have to call on Blunkett's virtues (as enunciated by Crick) of "common sense, humanity and knowledge of the Labour Party".