Now repair the window frames

On the opening page of the government's newly published annual report - a surprisingly modest, low-key document - you will find a rather curious picture. It is one of a set taken for the report by public sector employees with disposable cameras; bulldozers and building sites feature prominently. This particular picture, however, comes from a school in "Newcastle-under-Lyne" (which may mean "under-Lyme" or "upon Tyne") and, according to the caption, it shows "rotting window frames waiting to be replaced". They look indeed about as rotten as window frames could get while still doing any framing, but one longs to know the story behind them. How long have they been rotting? Did they rot under the Tories and then stop rotting, to await replacement, on 1 May 1997? Or has it been a continuous, all-party rot? Are they "waiting for replacement" in the same sense as one waits for a Lottery win? Or has a date been fixed? Will Tony Blair, given his taste for personal intervention, travel to whichever Newcastle it is and himself undertake the necessary woodwork?

Whoever chose the picture may have had a wicked sense of humour (as well as a weak grasp of geography), but one cannot help feeling that these rotting window frames should form part of some new Labour parable. It is hard to think of any previous government, Tory or Labour, that has sailed so smoothly through its early years. An election defeat is almost inconceivable; even a global economic catastrophe seems unlikely to help William Hague. Nobody should underestimate the scale of this achievement. For 18 years the Labour Party, associated with inflation, strikes, soaring taxes, runs on the pound and crazed backbenchers, had simply not been trusted to govern. In just two years Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and their colleagues have turned this perception on its head.

And yet, up and down the country, rotting window frames await replacement. We fight wars in Kosovo and build domes in Greenwich. But increasingly people notice that hospitals, health centres, job centres, schools, universities, railway stations and so on remain much the same. Class sizes are lower in infant schools, as promised, but perhaps a little higher in junior and secondary schools. Hospital waiting lists are down for in-patients, again as promised, but up for out-patients. The trains still do not run on time, and parts of the London Underground have ceased to work at all. Nobody expected miracles from new Labour, but people would like some evidence that things will indeed get better. As Mr Blair puts it in his introduction to the annual report: "In some areas the Government has made good progress but in other important fields it will take more time to achieve our goals." He then lists the NHS, inner-city comprehensives, social security, crime and the railways. While the implication that "good progress" has not been made in these areas is perhaps unintentional, it is certainly true that the government has still to show that it can deliver, and it is encouraging that Mr Blair seems to acknowledge the point.

But if it is to restore Britain's public services - surely the most urgent task for a left-of-centre government after 18 years of Tory neglect - Labour needs to get some things clear. First, does it trust public sector management and employees to achieve improvement? Its present habit is to hand out funds grudgingly, under the most stringent rules and controls, for fear of waste and "poor value". It then complains that the public sector lacks enterprise and innovation. If it feels unable to place full confidence in public servants, it should go the whole hog with privatisation. There is no evidence whatever that the private sector can deliver a better service for the same money, but if it can attract significantly higher levels of government funding, so be it. Second, do ministers accept investment in public services as primarily a public responsibility? At present they are so dazzled by their new baby, the Public Private Partnership, that they regard public finance almost as a last resort. Thus the London Underground continues to deteriorate while the government searches for a private investor. Third, are ministers willing to spell out to the public that they will get only what they pay for? If people really want less public squalor, they must sacrifice a fraction of private affluence through increased taxation. To pretend that substantial improvements can be achieved solely through greater "efficiency" or "productivity" is a cruel deception.

The public services and their pitiful state, epitomised by those rotting window frames, should be at the centre of Labour's next election campaign. Mr Blair may have stopped his search for a big idea but, if he wants one, he should look no further.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, America says: never again!