Welcome, little Leo

– and let’s hope your dad fixes our education system before you get to school

I was thrilled to bits when I heard that the Blairs were to have another child. Not because I’m a sentimental old buffoon, but because I’m a teacher, and I figured that Tony Blair would now have a real incentive to invest in a first class education system for our country over the next five years, ready for his sprog’s first day in school.

Remember the election pledge? “Education will be our number one priority, and we will increase the share of national income spent on education as we decrease it on the bills of economic and social failure.”

Record: a weak start. Education spending as a proportion of national income will be lower in this Parliament than the last. For most children, school class sizes are now bigger than three years ago and there are acute teacher recruitment problems. Only 2 out of 10 parents think education standards have improved since Labour came to power.

In the Comprehensive Spending Review, Labour set a target of 5% of GDP going on education. Even if, as projected, Labour reach this goal in 2002 they will only return education spending to the share of national income it was at in 1992. And Tory spending on education was never generous, as any teacher will tell you.

Let’s hope that little Leo sees a bit more effort being put into our schools by the time he’s five.

Meanwhile, the Tories have been celebrating their May 4th local election wins. They think they have seen a revival in their fortunes – but I suspect they may have witnessed what Paddy Ashdown called the ‘dead cat bounce’. They had lost so many seats the last time around that they were bound to win some back this time, just as a dead cat will bounce a bit if dropped from a high enough point.

But while the Tories were winning their local seats back, they were losing the Romsey parliamentary by-election in a spectacular fashion. This was their 51st safest seat – yet they lost it to the Liberal Democrats, an unheard of feat for a Tory party in opposition.

How did they do it?

Well, they fought a homophobic, xenophobic, vigilantist campaign, in the mistaken belief that they were striking a chord in the heart of every true Englishman. They campaigned for the retention of Section 28, against asylum seekers, for a vigilante approach to rural crime.

Listen to William Hague’s words, a couple of days before polling:

“In this election campaign, the Liberal Democrats set themselves against the instincts of the British people. Soft on crime, soft on bogus asylum seekers, committed to a federal Europe, they now speak for no one, not even their own supporters. With their crackpot views and extremist policies, the Liberals are fast becoming a lone voice of insanity in British politics.”

Yet the people of Romsey showed that they valued a more decent type of Britishness. That they are more tolerant than Hague and his right-wing minders.

I suspect that the difference between Tory gains in the local elections and the Tory loss of Romsey was due in the end to turnout. They were able to get their core vote out across the country, with a brace and a half of populist slogans. In the local elections, where turnout was around 30%, that was enough to see them home. In Romsey, where the turnout was much higher, the Tory core vote was swamped by the anti-Tory vote. People preferred the ‘lone voice of insanity’ in British politics to the mean-minded bigotry of the conservatives.

I was surprised to find backing for my analysis from an unexpected source. Guess who said this, when asked if the Tory vote was on the way up: “It didn’t show in the Romsey election did it? Not for one moment. A perfectly safe Conservative seat, and was lost by a large majority to the Liberals. How can you say that’s winning the votes? On the question of local government of course the poll was very small in any case, and when you get to the parliamentary government then the poll was much higher – over 50% – and the result was that we lost a safe Conservative seat. That’s because they weren’t prepared to vote for either our leader or the sort of policies that were being put forward.” (Answer: Edward Heath.)

The message from Romsey is that the Tories aren’t on their way back. Hague should be worried.

All of a sudden, the Tories have remembered the pensioners they mistreated so badly through the 80’s and 90’s. Hague plans to sweep away Labour’s ‘handouts and gimmicks’ and increase the basic state pension.

Let’s have a look at his sums:

  • Pensioners are already expecting an inflation-linked rise of £2 next April;
  • Single pensioners currently receive a winter fuel payment of £3 per week anyway;
  • All pensioners currently receive a Christmas bonus worth 20p per week;
  • The Conservatives are proposing to give single pensioners a pension rise of £5.50.

But when the inflation-linked rise and abolition of the Winter Fuel Payment and the Christmas bonus are taken into account, pensioners will actually be only 30p a week better off.

In fact, because the Winter Fuel Payment is tax free and the state pension is taxable, delivering the £3 per week Winter Fuel payment through the state pension will cost taxpaying pensioners 66p – more than offsetting the 30p net increase.

So I’d say: “Back to school, Mr Hague – and let’s hope that Mr Blair can afford your remedial maths lessons as well as a good start for little Leo!”