Labour rejected the fatalistic assumption that public services could never really deliver higher standards or fairer access, reflects Jacqui Smith
Before my election to parliament in 1997, I was a teacher in Tory Worcestershire. My classroom was in a portakabin and a bucket to catch the drips coming through the roof was an important teaching resource. At early constituency surgeries after my election, I was shocked to witness the tears of grown men who sat opposite me and told me that they would have to wait up to 18 months for a heart operation and feared they would die on the waiting list.
There can be little argument that Labour’s record-breaking investment in the NHS and school buildings transformed both of these experiences by the end of our term. Similar changes meant New Labour was the first government to leave office with crime lower than when we entered office. But to what extent can the overall record of ‘investment and reform’ in public services be judged a success?
Public services, in this article at least, is a shorthand for education, health and policing.
In education, the early mantra was that the focus should be on ‘standards, not structures’. The national literacy and numeracy strategies transformed standards in primary schools and had the biggest impact on those in the most challenged areas. Targets for improvement were set; methods of teaching were mandated – there was little flexibility or devolution to the frontline.
Similarly in health, access targets alongside the extra investment were crucial to ensuring that waiting times came down. Once again, there was tight central management and monitoring going all the way to the secretary of state’s office. In the Home Office, there was an emphasis on targets for crime reduction – a rejection of the traditional idea in that department that crime was not something amenable to policy intervention. To be fair, this was an assumption originally challenged by Michael Howard as home secretary, but fully embedded by Labour.
However, one of the lessons of our time in government is the limitations of trying to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to reform. This is not to condemn these methods – when Labour came to office in 1997 we inherited a schools system and NHS where a failure to invest went alongside a fatalistic assumption that public services could never really deliver higher standards or fairer access. While those on the frontline were undoubtedly put under pressure by new targets and expectations, they could also recognise that these came from a fundamental belief that there was a comprehensive role for state schools and the NHS – they should not be allowed to fade into safety-net services while most aspired to find alternatives.
Once re-elected, the appetite for reform increased exponentially and become a focus from the prime minister down. In 2002, the government identified four principles of reform: national standards; devolution; flexibility; and choice. This moved the debate onto structures as well as standards. The aim was to free up institutions from what had traditionally been a very centrally managed health service and an education system where, despite moves to delegate more funding to schools, there was little autonomy and a focus on uniformity of provision.
The academies programme in education concentrated financial and other support on some of the most challenged schools in the country – and developed a model where autonomy drove innovation and improvement. While the original aim of just 200 academies was small in terms of reach, it was significant in providing an alternative model for school governance. The lessons learned from the programme echoed through the system. In fact, just the experience of turning round the most challenging of schools had a positive impact on surrounding schools. Take Hackney, once a byword for educational failure, now a beacon of success.
The NHS foundation trust policy aimed to insert some local control and contestability into a monolithic NHS. This was an idea which originated from the Co-operative party and the mutual tradition in the Labour party. Once again, autonomy drove innovation and improvement in the service.
Neighbourhood policing teams were a fundamental reform of the role and responsibility of police. They – alongside the creation of police community support officers and the extensive use of antisocial behaviour orders – ensured visibility, but also partnership working to build confidence and to tackle crime and its causes more effectively. Alongside the emphasis on antisocial behaviour, there was a strong expectation that police and local partners should tackle not just high-profile crime, but those incidents which most impacted people’s lives on a day-to-day basis.
This was not the end of national standards – targets remained and were developed; there was little appetite to free up the provisions of the national curriculum for schools, and in developing the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and national service frameworks for different areas of healthcare, the focus remained on improvement. Some saw this as an important counterweight to producer interests within the system – the ‘forces of conservatism’.
Was this a failing of our government? We too often saw frontline staff as a hurdle to be overcome rather than allies in reform, the NHS ‘agenda for change’ being the most notable exception to this. There was good work to develop leadership in schools, but one of the biggest problems for today’s NHS is the dearth of good leaders and the idea that quality can be regulated and inspected into the system.
This is not to ignore the enormously important progress on the public sector workforce. Whether teachers, doctors, nurses or police officers, the Labour years saw more and better paid staff. In addition, teaching assistants and PCSOs demonstrated that new types of workers could make their services more flexible and responsive and could free up other professionals to focus on key tasks. TeachFirst was a brilliant innovation on our watch, but counterparts in social work (Frontline), mental health (Think Ahead) and policing (Police Now) had to wait for the coalition for their creation. Perhaps we could have trusted them more.
Progress was made in devolving power and empowering the users of services – more choice and support for parents; direct payments introduced for social care users; ‘place-based’ funding devolved to local government; removing all targets but one to raise the confidence of communities from police. However, we failed to really grasp the opportunities for devolution of power beyond this and never trusted councillors to champion good educational standards or commission health services locally. Nor did we ever properly get to grips with issues around the governance and structure of policing.
Labour’s record on public services is an undoubted success. However, it is because we believe in these services – and because we know that social justice, strong communities and social mobility depend on them, that we must be the most challenging of our record and our proposals. And we must hope that Labour local government can continue to make progress even in an era when reform will need to happen without investment.
Jacqui Smith is a former home secretary and a contributing editor to Progress
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