2000s >> 2007 >> no-1230-february-2007

Greasy Pole: The Trouble With Kelly

“During the 1997 election she was heavily pregnant, which must have been worth not a few votes to her”

There was a time when the Labour benches in the Commons were thickly strewn with men whose leathery skin and calloused hands told of a past as coal miners, dockers or shipyard workers. Let these men pin you in a conversational headlock and you were likely to be anaesthetised by reminiscences of picket-line battles, wage bargaining carried relentlessly into the small hours and parliamentary struggles over some unmemorable reform.

All this flavoured with the defiant pride of someone describing themselves as self-educated, of drowsing over heavy tomes of history and economics while outside the dawn broke over the back-to-backs. If you were allowed a word in edgeways you might have been able to ask why such a background had failed to sensitise them to the waste of supporting the Labour Party style of trying to control capitalism in preference to that of the Tories. Such questions were unlikely to stem the flow of self-deception, or indeed to have been heard.

Well things have changed since then and those same benches are now peopled by a more furtive generation of Labour Members, although the divergence between their professed ambitions for a different society and their everyday support for their party of capitalism is as wide as ever.

For example there is Ruth Kelly, one time Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Education and Skills and now Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Kelly’s skin is not roughened (unless it be through changing nappies among of her four children) and she was not self-educated for she went to exclusive private schools. A scaringly responsive pupil, she graduated in Philosophy Politics and Economics at Oxford, then took an MSc in economics at the London School of Economics.

A spell as an economics reporter for the Guardian was followed by another as deputy editor of the Bank of England quarterly inflation report. These excursions into the jungle of deluded “experts” did not deflate her ambitions and in 1997 she won Bolton West from the Tories – which of course meant that had to prove her demotic credentials by supporting Bolton Wanderers, just as Blair supports Newcastle and Mandelson used to support Hartlepool.


When she was promoted to Education, after the sacking of Charles Clarke, Kelly was, at 36, the youngest ever member of the Cabinet by ten years. In fact she has a record of filling the shoes of fallen ministers. She was promoted at the Treasury into the job of the embarrassing Paul Boateng after patience with him ran out and he was shipped off to be High Commissioner for South Africa; her present job is a new ministry, created when John Prescott’s standing descended into farce – not all of it due to his affair with his diary secretary – and he was relieved of responsibility for communities and local government.

It seems that Kelly has been seen as a rare, highly prized, safe pair of hands. In more ways than one; during the 1997 election she was heavily pregnant with her first child, which must have been worth not a few votes to her. She has shown some ability to balance the demands of her job with the needs of her family, trying to restrict her working hours and when she was at the Treasury she refused to take home her red box. Tory MP Boris Johnson has declared the he admires “…the way she has managed to be a real person as well as succeeding in politics. She must be identical twins”. It remains to be seen how much damage this endorsement from Johnson – who does not strive to be a real person – does to Kelly’s career.

Opus Dei

While still in her thirties, Kelly conforms to some of the most desirable stereotypes in politics: female, well educated, experienced in journalism, banking and ministerial power. A busy, devoted mother. Not much else would be needed to make her eventually a strong candidate for Number Ten. Except that as she got into her stride as a minister the “not much else” began to look like a great deal by way of obstacles to her ascent of the greasy pole.

Her time at Education was marked by trouble, over disputes such as replacing GCSEs and A levels and the plans to introduce trust schools. In one clash with the NUT she was written down as the worst ever Education Secretary. An additional problem has been her possible membership of Opus Dei, a catholic pressure group the membership of which is by invitation only and which aims to promote catholicism on matters such as abortion.

Kelly has always refused to discuss whether she is a member but she has conveniently avoided parliamentary votes on matters such as gay equality, she refused to work at the Department of Health because of her opposition to abortion and at the Department of International Development because of its encouragement of the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and Aids.


And what of other issues on which Kelly, as a bright,heavily educated political leader, has expressed her views? She was a firm supporter if Identity Cards, in spite of all that that implies about a further assault by a growingly intrusive state on what are called civil liberties. She was a strong supporter of foundation hospitals, at a time when the “reconfiguration” of the NHS has provoked even the most robotic of New Labour acolytes – such as Hazel Blears and John Reid – into a rebellion, even if a modest one, against the closure of hospitals.

Kelly was in favour of student top-up fees, although when she was Minister of State for the Cabinet Office she was involved in drafting Labour’s 2005 election manifesto, when she may have noticed that the 2001 promise “We will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them” had been re-written as “The new proposals for higher education will…restore grants, and abolish upfront fees”.

Her support for the Iraq war was definite, although she would have known that it would be a struggle in which tens of thousands would be killed in the cause of protecting the interests of western capitalism in that oil-rich region and she could not have been so stupid and naïve as to believe that a stable, happy Iraq would quickly emerge from the wreckage there.

All of these votes were motivated, not by any religious convictions but by what Kelly sees as her duty as a politician to stand for the interests of the British ruling class and so to assist in the continuation of the system of capitalism, with all the devastation it inflicts on the human race.


Any doubts about Kelly’s capacity for duplicity should have been stilled by the revelation of her choice of school for her eldest child, her only son, who is classified as having special needs because he is dyslexic. This lad has been attending the English Martyrs Roman Catholic School in Tower Hamlets, which is widely regarded as one of the strongest educational authorities in the country. Kelly has removed her son from that school on the grounds that it is unable to cater for his “particular and substantial learning difficulties”. Instead he will be a boarder at the Bruern Abbey school, where the fees are £15,000 a year.

The local authority does not agree with this move, saying that “We have a strong record in helping  children with a wide range of learning needs to succeed”. An OFSTED report on the English Martyrs in 2002 stated that “Pupils…with special educational needs make particularly good progress…The needs of these pupils are identified clearly. They are given work that is well matched to their needs and effective support in lessons so they make good, often very good, progress…The result of good teaching is that, by the end of Year 6, many pupils with special educational needs …reach the nationally expected standard in English and mathematics”.

Of course Kelly is not the only Labour leader to place their children at expensive private school. It may be that such schools do achieve to higher standards with their pupils but that is beside the point. For the vast majority of the working class – the people who are deceived by Labour promises about education, health, employment and so on – simply can’t afford to place their children anywhere other than the state sector schools. The lesson of Ruth Kelly, her career and her son, is that capitalism sets different standards. The better, higher, standard is to be enjoyed by those able to afford it. The worse, lower, standard is for the rest, to be endured by them.


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