Labour is here for the long, hard haul
New Statesman Scotland - Like Westminster, the Scottish Parliament is tackling the toughest
Two years on from celebrating confirmation that a Scottish Parliament was indeed the settled will of the Scottish people, three years on from the election of a Labour government that delivered it, the cynics ask what Labour has done for them. My argument is that we must reconnect with the people to show them why government matters, that it can and is making a difference. Winning an election is a beginning not an end in itself.
Labour came into government to face a disillusionment with the political process that had built up over 20 years. We took office determined to tackle the sense of disempowerment that comes with disillusion. No one said it would be easy. No one said it should be, either. Our inheritance was a cash-starved, fragmented health service. We've begun to change that by making radical changes to the way it works and the service it offers. A demoralised and fund-starved education system is being turned around. A third of all children were living in poverty when Labour took office. That's a big problem to deal with, but we have made a good start in tackling it, with much more to do. We are addressing long-term problems with serious long-term solutions.
But during the first few months of the parliament, too many people spent too much time talking about the institutions not the politics, the personalities not the purpose. This plays into the hands of those who do not believe that politicians can make a difference, or who do not want them to. That view is largely responsible for the sense of detachment and disillusionment that many now feel for politics both in Scotland and elsewhere in Britain. As if winning power was all there was. But the point of winning power is not just to deliver a parliament: it is to use that parliament to deliver social justice - jobs, schools, hospitals, homes. These are the priorities of a Labour government wherever it is sitting because these are the priorities of those who elect it.
The reality of the new Scottish Parliament saw destiny delivered with the first words of the Scotland Act: "There shall be a Scottish Parliament." For some, it seems, that is where the excitement ended. As if all that has followed is of secondary concern. But Labour in government has achieved; it has begun to make a difference. Donald Dewar and all those now working to turn a cherished ideal into a genuine vehicle for change don't indulge in cynical posturing. They are too busy making it work.
Scotland has a real tradition of civic society: the Scottish Executive has brought together the public, voluntary and private sectors of that society, working together to achieve the kind of joined-up government that it has so long needed. The Scottish Parliament has moved government closer to the people who elected it.
If government figures or damned statistics don't convince, then try talking to people who do know the difference. A week or so ago, I met a young woman in Edinburgh, a lone parent in her twenties who had been out of work for years. She's working now - the 5,000th person in Scotland helped into work by the New Deal for Lone Parents. This was someone who said that, for years, she couldn't see a way out, couldn't find help. Now she is selling advance tickets for a football club. The New Deal scheme personal adviser who had worked with her told me that she had placed 90 people like this young woman in work, with only three failures.
The people of Scotland - not just the Tartan Cogno-scenti, but those who come through my surgery door - are concerned that they and their children will have secure jobs and decent homes; that their children will go to good schools in good repair; that, if they are ill, they will have excellent care in modern hospitals and not too long to wait; and that they will be safe from crime. We must continue to put forward our core message: this government is in it for the long, hard haul, not for the glory of a short sprint to popularity - not boom and bust, but stability, more jobs and better public services. We will continue to work hard to rebuild the country to benefit the many, to help them succeed. So when people ask what Labour has done for them, in Scotland and elsewhere, we should have the confidence to tell them . . .
Education? In Scotland alone, the new parliament has expanded the Sure Start Scotland programme to give extra support to young families in the most deprived communities: £42m over three years, benefiting at least 5,000 children and their families. It is investing more than £380m in pre-school education, crucial to educational attainment and social inclusion. Every four-year-old is already guaranteed a free nursery place, and many three-year-olds now have access to high-quality nursery education: by 2002, every Scottish pre-schooler will have the same option. Smaller classes, more classroom assistants, the Early Intervention programme to improve literacy and numeracy in Scottish primary schools, backed by £56m and focused on our most deprived areas.
In health, new hospitals are coming on stream in Scotland. Over the next five years, spending on the NHS will increase by a third - the biggest ever increase in its entire history.
We promised a Drugs Enforce- ment Agency, now set up with extra resources for education and rehabilitation. The New Deal for young people has seen 25,000 people into work, on top of the 5,000 lone parents who've been helped to find jobs. Scotland is finally to get its first National Park; there is a new Highlands and Islands task force; transport in Scotland is at last being given the kind of priority that it has so long needed.
It is not hard to see why the Nationalists and the Tories revel in cynicism: they need failure to thrive. And, in my view, that is in large part responsible for the sense of detachment and disillusion that many now feel for politics, both in Scotland and elsewhere in Britain. Who can blame voters for feeling disillusioned about politics and politicians when cynicism is fuelled by the auld alliance of Nationalists and Tories, both of whom need to persuade people that whatever Labour is doing doesn't matter.
The Nationalists don't believe in the Scottish Parliament, never have, and therefore must prove that it does not and cannot work. If I were in a political party with only one policy, I, too, might want to talk about that single policy as do the droning debaters of separatism. In England - because that is where the Tories operate for now - William Hague has to make out that politicians cannot make any difference. How else to explain away 18 years of Tory misrule and to rubbish everything this government has achieved?
Politicians have to be grown-up: if we make decisions, we have to face difficult questions. If we mess up, we have to admit mistakes and accept the consequences. As Keynes said, if the facts change, we should be prepared to change our minds. Alongside that, is it too much to ask that good things - the lone parent who gets a job, the pensioner who gets her minimum income guarantee, the school with lower class sizes and more cash - should get at least recognition if not an honourable mention?
I say this not because politicians expect thanks or gratitude. Roy Hattersley told me, when I had one occasion to thank him, that "there's no such thing as gratitude in politics". But the public has to be shown both sides, the good as well as the bad. What keeps many of us going is that I suspect they do see more than many of the commentators would give them credit for.
We are taking big decisions; there will be flak, but let's take it head on: Labour has begun to deliver for a huge number of people in this country, and has made a genuine difference for the good to the lives of many people for whom social disadvantage was not a slogan but a dire way of life.
What has Labour done for us? The highest ever rise in child benefit; more than a million children lifted out of poverty; the lowest unemployment level in 25 years; the lowest interest rate in 30 years; £6.5bn extra for pensioners and £40bn more for schools and hospitals. Are these not worth doing? Or acknowledging?
So much more remains to be done. But we have made a start. Labour is delivering. It is delivering in Scotland and for Scotland. In partnership with the Westminster government, it will go on delivering.
The achievement of a new parliament was not the only hope delivered two years ago: the same excitement and sense of purpose felt then and on the night that the first Labour government in 20 years had been elected was not the end of an old story. It was just the start of a new beginning.