Last Monday saw a gathering of the great and good – or not depending on your position on the ‘Third Way’ – during the inaugural Philip Gould lecture. Tony Blair gave us a timely reminder of the achievements of successive Labour governments at the venue where 20 years earlier, he had delivered his first speech as the party’s leader.
It was an impressive list, including record levels of employment, rising living standards across society and peace in Northern Ireland. The party adopted a more open-minded approach to the private sector, rightly determined to dispel notions it was anti-business.
But it also achieved fantastic improvements in the standard of public services, becoming the first government since the war to cut crime while achieving the lowest ever NHS waiting times and significant improvements in education and child care.
Dare I say there was even a mini-revolution in workers’ rights, led by the introduction of a national minimum wage, improved maternity rights, paternity rights and the guarantee of full-time rights for part-time employees.
On the back of these progressive and successful policies, Labour enjoyed an unprecedented three terms in office. So as our manifesto takes greater shape in the coming months, we should feel confident in drawing upon this legacy. As Tony Blair pointed out, as a party we all want to live in a country of opportunity where people’s chances in life are not dictated by where they come from.
We want a decent standard of living for everyone and better support for the poor and vulnerable in our society. But only by winning the next general election can Labour again form a government, achieve positive change for those without power and giving them a voice.
In order to achieve this we need a broad coalition of support and that means truly putting into practice the idea of ‘one nation’ and reaching beyond our core voters. We must confront the challenges we face today and develop solutions that show we understand people’s lives and that we are practical and hard-headed enough to make a real difference.
We face immediate challenges around the cost of living against a backdrop of below-inflation pay and rising energy prices, rents and transport and childcare costs.
Then there are the important long-term priorities like meeting the social care needs of our rising elderly population, providing everyone with decent homes and ensuring future generations have the skills they need to get on in life and ensure that as a country we have a thriving economy.
But today is not 1997 and we must aspire to achieve these things against a backdrop of austerity in the wake of the global financial crisis.
The state can and must have an important role to play in guiding a recovery that benefits everyone, not just certain sections of society or areas of the country.
However, no government will have the resources to meet these challenges alone. I want to see a state working with, mobilising and building upon the best efforts of our private and voluntary sectors. Important public services must be delivered in a different way and improved – not decimated by budget cuts. We should be mobilising investment to help people and by doing so we will save money in the long-run.
For instance, we could address the social care challenge by persuading social investors like trust funds, foundations and individuals to help finance initiatives that help older people with serious illnesses like dementia. As well as the huge personal benefits, this could reduce the need for costly hospital or residential care, ensuring there is money both to repay investors and further improve services.
Challenges like ensuring young people have the training and skills to find decent jobs, and tackling the cost-of-living crisis, can also be better met by harnessing the strengths of responsible businesses, social enterprises and charities. The Public Services (Social Value) Act, which I supported through parliament, gives them a better chance of winning public contracts by requiring commissioners to consider social, economic and environmental benefits as well as cost. This could mean contracts go to those which offer apprenticeships to unemployed young people, sub-contract to local companies and enterprises and pay staff at least the living wage.
Tony Blair was right in his assertion that we cannot seek answers based on ideology. We must do what works in practice. And if that helps us to move towards achieving our aspiration of a fairer, more just society in which people of all backgrounds have hope and are empowered to get on in life, we will have a great chance of once again winning back-to-back elections.
As our former prime minister told the audience last week: ‘In the end parties can please themselves or please the people.’ I know what I would choose.
Hazel Blears MP is a former secretary of state for communities and local government
Photo: Paul Heartfield
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