'Whatever works': a New Labour mantra worth saving

There are tentative signs that ministers may now be genuinely neutral between public and private

The most important section of James Purnell's piece in today's Guardian concerns the delivery of public services. From its inception onwards, New Labour claimed to be ideologically neutral over the public and private sectors; 'whatever works' was its mantra. But in practice, Tony Blair allowed reform to become synonymous with privatisation. Purnell suggests he's now prepared to reconsider this disastrous approach. He writes:

Once we're clearer about our goals, we will be forced to be bolder about our methods. So, if allowing state schools to be run by profit-making companies encourages equality of capability, we will have to allow it. If educational selection by religion increases inequality, we will have to start a difficult debate about it. If child poverty wrecks any possibility of equality of capability, then we will have to make abolishing it our top priority.

It may seem somewhat counter-intuitive to cite a passage in which Purnell appears to advocate greater use of the private sector in education but it's the pragmatism that counts.

New Labour's fetishisation of the private sector made it no better than those socialists who supported public ownership not on practical grounds, but because they believed each successive nationalisation brought them one step closer to a socialist Valhalla. There are now tentative signs that the humiliation of big finance and the nationalisation of swathes of the banking sector has freed Blairite ministers up to be genuinely neutral between public and private.

In his interview with my colleague James Macintyre earlier this month, Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, who is usually dismissed as a free-market fundamentalist, said he wished Labour could have pulled the plug on rail privatisation in the mid-1990s. He also described the nationalisation of the East Coast Main Line as a "pragmatic" step. And why should it have been anything else? There is now no justification for supporting either the public or the private sector on anything other than pragmatic grounds.

If more ministers can follow Purnell and Adonis, then 'whatever works' will be one piece of New Labour wisdom worth salvaging.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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