Northern nostalgia for school dinners

July 24, 1998

LIKE most politicians, I am a very emotional person. I say this not because I am innately soppy. Indeed, any product of Lancashire County Council school meals in the 1960s is made of strong stuff. If you had been brought up on a diet concocted by butchers Bob Lord and Louis Edwards, you would be able to stand up to the slings and arrows with the best of them.

Bob Lord was, for many years, the chairman of that great northern football club, Burnley FC. Louis Edwards, father of Martin, was, for even longer, chairman of Manchester United Football Club. Lucky so-and-so's. Their respective fortunes were built on their meat businesses, which, in turn, were based on winning the contract for school meals' supplies from County Hall in Preston.

As well as providing the Theatres of Dreams at Turf Moor and Old Trafford, they fed postwar school kids throughout the Northwest. Their sausages built sinews that could break the legs of southern softies from Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea. If you think Chopper Harris was a hard nut, you never saw Adam Blacklaw.

Take me to a primary school and the lump comes into my throat. Nostalgia courses through my veins and philanthropy beats in my heart as the innocence of childhood crashes over the weary cynicism of a week in the House of Cards. A five-year-old's painting of an Easter egg on the wall of a classroom has, only recently, reduced me to a quivering blob of penitent jelly. Politicians love infant schools.

This emotional pitifulness is directly related to the need to modernise the House of Commons. Most MPs visit primary schools and nurseries on Fridays. That is the only weekday during term time that northern MPs, who are predominately Labour, are available. And, generally, you are completely exhausted.

This is because of parliamentary sitting times, which keep us up day and night trooping through the lobbies and catching up with constituency casework.

When a politician visits a primary school he or she is therefore in an advanced stage of sleep deprivation, utterly run down and susceptible to the flimsiest portion of emotional blackmail.

Now there is some cynicism in all of this. Politicians like visiting primary schools. I mean, really like. As photo-calls go, visiting primary schools are premier league opportunities. Lots of sweet young children, parents impressed by your concern and no annoying telephone interruptions as you make your statesmanlike tour.

On top of this, there is usually a lovely cup of tea, specially brewed by the school cook, and chocolate biscuits from the head-teacher's cupboard. If the school has benefited from David Blunkett's enlightened generosity, as most have in recent months - and will from financial announcements, then you are in the political equivalent of the pig in the manure.

I am convinced that better financing of primary schools and nurseries is directly attributable to this equation: the amount of school funding is directly proportional to the number of late night sittings in the Commons.

I shall name this law in honour of my predecessor, the late Geoffrey Dickens, who visited all the infant schools in our constituency during his 20 years as local MP. Dickens's law is a good example of how politics really works.

Of course there are select committee inquiries, cabinet committees and funding formulas, focus groups and manifestos. But what really counts is good, old-fashioned human emotion. Which means, if I were a primary head-teacher, I would oppose modernisation of Parliament, tooth, nail, blackboard and duster.

Phil Woolas is the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.

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