'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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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.