Blunkett reveals skills forged in Sheffield

May 1, 1998

THES reporters assess the impact of Labour's first year of government on higher and further education and unravel how they have sold their policies to the country

When Labour took power last year much was made of the inexperience of the new government. After 18 years in opposition, few ministers - not even the prime minister - had much experience of running anything.

David Blunkett was the conspicuous exception. He had not been a minister - he only entered Parliament as member for Sheffield Brightside at the 1987 General Election - but he had run a large, politically sensitive organisation as leader of Sheffield City Council between 1980 and 1987.

So he came into power with a well-defined and tested management style, which has ensured a clear continuity with the approach displayed in opposition. There is never any doubt who is in charge, but within that limit he operates on a collegial basis, delegating to his subordinates and giving them some discretion.

A workaholic with a head for detail, he drives hard and is skilled at getting the best from subordinates and researchers.

"He is an extremely generous person, immensely supportive and very generous with praise. If there are obstacles in your way, he does all he can to clear them for you," says one policy expert.

Those attitudes help to explain the immense loyalty he inspires in people who have worked with him. A former political opponent from his Sheffield days remembers him as "a pretty robust operator, but a likeable man with an excellent sense of humour and a good line in political banter".

But that willingness to delegate may not have served him so well in his first year as secretary of state. Nobody is in any doubt that his real enthusiasm, and the bulk of a formidable store of energy, has been devoted to the schools.

"He's not uninterested in further and higher education - he is particularly concerned about the access and lifelong learning agendas, although rather less excited about issues such as academic standards. But schools are the priority," says one insider.

Has that preoccupation allowed his junior ministers on the further and higher side to flounder more than was necessary? The problem with tuition fees for gap-year students can be blamed on civil servants who should have spotted it coming. The same cannot be said of the lifelong learning white paper - delayed, then downgraded and leaving the impression that the government had not got much further in its thinking than a catchy phrase and a noble aspiration.

Some backbenchers and policy advisers suggest that he might have done better to delegate still more on schools to Stephen Byers, generally seen as the strongest member of his team and certainly favourite to be first to join him at the cabinet table, and been more hands-on the further and higher side where Baroness Blackstone, though long on intellect, is judged by many to be short on basic political instincts.

Nor has the government been terribly good at selling the progressive case for tuition fees to the wider public - an odd failure given a resounding victory at the Labour Party conference.

But there are no complaints about Blunkett's performance in the House of Commons or on conference platforms, where he has been robust and confident. A skilful recounter of anecdotes, he tends to use them, and references to his own background and experience, as a defence mechanism when under fire.

The simple fact of a blind man managing one of the major offices of state remains in itself astonishing. It also furnishes a defence against critics and satirists - impressionist Rory Bremner does not include him in his repertoire. Caricaturing a man whose physical mannerisms are inextricably linked to a physical handicap could hardly escape accusations of bad taste.

His instincts for inclusiveness and collegiality extend to Labour's backbenchers - he has made time to attend at least part of every meeting of the backbench education and employment committee. While tuition fees are stretching remaining links with the left almost to breaking point, Blunkett remains a key bridging figure in Labour's ideological coalition.

"Like John Prescott, he's someone Blair knows has to be squared, and he benefits from that," comments one backbencher.

Evidence of that was the shot he fired across the government's bows on disabilities benefits.

With the comprehensive spending review looming and Gordon Brown signalling the end of the Tory departmental budget cap, the world of education must hope that the benefits include a generous settlement in the July spending review.

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