Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Deficit defeatists

If it is to address the progressive deficit Labour must not turn its back on public service reform

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The Labour government ‘contributed almost nothing new or imaginative to the pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature and its environment.’ So wrote the New Statesman in a 1954 biographical piece about Clem Atlee and the 1945-1951 Labour government. Amazing as though it may now appear, some contemporary Labour figures of the period were lambasting Atlee’s post-war government for its lack of ambition and for it not being ‘socialist’ enough. Therefore, after an unprecedented 10 consecutive years of Labour in office it is perhaps no surprise that some Labour members and supporters express similar anxieties and disappointments.

In fairness, it is not simply the usual suspects who are lining up to trash what they see as 10 wasted years of Labour rule. Some ordinary, or what Alastair Campbell might describe as ‘bog standard’, Labour members and supporters have concerns that ‘we’ haven’t done enough, that ‘we’ haven’t been radical enough. The problem with this is that in truth most Labour members and supporters operate on a level of mild schizophrenia. We want our party to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic; to be a party that proudly honours its past whilst not neglecting to shape its and the nation’s future; to champion the state whilst being part of the market; to tackle poverty but to also support aspiration.

When Labour took office in 1997 Britain was suffering from what Blair later described as a ‘progressive deficit.’ What he meant was that Britain was far from being a modern social democratic nation. The constitution was failing, with Scotland and Wales denied proper government, and hereditary privilege still the foundation of the House of Lords. Unlike many of our European neighbours, Britain lacked quality childcare and universal nursery provision or schools and hospitals with proper equipment and enough well paid staff. In the years up to 1997 Britain was a country that had spent billions of pounds keeping able-bodied people idle because of boom and bust, where unemployment often exceeded three million, and where the absence of a national minimum wage condemned millions to poverty pay.

Labour’s mission over the past 10 years has been to address this progressive deficit. On the constitution Britain has now developed as a modern pluralist democracy – devolution for Scotland and Wales, mayors for London and others cities, House of Lords reform, freedom of information and the Human Rights Act. For working people Labour has now delivered progressive rights that many other countries took for granted – a minimum wage, four weeks paid holiday, better maternity and paternity rights, the basic right to join a trade union. For communities and families torn apart by crime, anti-social behaviour, racial intolerance and drugs, Labour has established major programmes of inner city regeneration, excellence in cities for schools, Sure Start, and additional investment in youth and sport facilities.

All of the modernisation has been for a purpose: to renew our public services and keep them faithful to the ethos and values of public service whilst at the same time making them responsive to the individual needs of the people they serve. We needed to create a patient-centred NHS; a pupil-centred school system. We needed to move beyond a monolithic NHS and a uniform secondary school system. We needed to do this in order to further extend opportunity and social justice.

The truth is that many of the changes Labour has made these past 10 years – on the constitution, economic policy, minimum wage, the public services – are likely to last the test of time. The challenge for a post-Blair government is to make even more of our progressive agenda irreversible; changes that cannot be rolled back by a future right wing Tory government that wants to dismantle most, if not all, that has been achieved. If we fail to further reform public services then one day the right will come back and demolish the very ethos on which they are built – with more charging, less investment, good services for the well-off and second class services for the rest.

However, the challenge to the progressive wing of the party comes not only from a resurgent Tory party but also the defeatists, pessimists and cynics that exist in our own party. The battle (and it is a battle) to transform our public services is not yet won. Public services in Britain are still in the process of being revived and renewed yet there are many in our own party who apparently want to see not revival but reversal. In the 2005 general election Blair staked Labour’s reputation on delivering further improvements in our public services. A Brown-led government would be wise to review this decision, not because it is the wrong direction in which to proceed, but because it is a four, or even five, term objective.

The truth is that Britain is doing better in 2007 than it was in 1997. We are a more progressive country today than 10 years ago – our constitution, our economy, our public services are all in better shape. We have achieved much in the last 10 years – but much remains to be done.

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