Labour missed its chance when times were good

John Lloyd's claim that "the effectiveness of Germany's health service . . . is considerably lower than the UK's" ("How new Labour wrestled with a world it never made", 30 April) provides a useful way in to understanding why Labour's first term has been such a disappointment. The German health system, based on compulsory insurance, delivers universal freedom from waiting-lists, postcode lotteries and winter beds crises; it is more expensive, but no one who has experienced both would see the UK system as more effective. In our monoglot political culture, we routinely ignore or rubbish the established practices of our Continental neighbours because both politicians and commentators look exclusively to America for solutions.

Moreover, we measure effectiveness very crudely. Lloyd's claim rests on the uninteresting truth that higher levels of German health expenditure do not correlate linearly with higher life expectancy. In our political culture, value for money means no more than getting the cheapest deal available on a minimal level of service (look at the way the rail franchises are being renewed, or the repeated failures of public-sector computerisation projects). It also means that whatever level public spending happens to have been driven down to gets instantly baselined: no subsequent increases without additional burdens on, and monitoring of, those delivering public services, who are denounced as hostile to change if they resist this kind of deal.

This government has done little to try to change this mindset; mostly, it has followed its predecessors in promoting and acting on it, and that is its real failure. If you miss your chance when times are good, you should not get praise for having "governed well".

Tim Reuter
Southampton, Hampshire

John Lloyd says: "The domestic wretched of rich states such as ours are a minority; their exclusion is not amenable to mere money transfer." Really? How many "domestically wretched" people does he know? What have they been telling him? "Look guv', four quid an hour is ample for my needs; all I ask is that the council hang some nice, pretty new pictures in the health centre"? Or "On my seventy-quid-a-week pension I'm sitting pretty - just get 'em to put a few more bus lanes down the M4"? Bollocks. John, babe, let me, as a minimum-wage slave, assure you that it is all about a mere "money transfer". Give us more money and we promise we'll go away and stop being excluded or being a burden on the state, or whatever we are under new Labour.

Simon Deee
Minstead, Hampshire

The best Labour government of the past half-century, says the ineffable John Lloyd (whom God preserve). But what are the core beliefs and behaviours of new Labour, as demonstrated in its first term? I'd say: embrace neoliberal economics; accept inequality; privatise, privatise and shrink the public weal; means test benefits; be socially authoritarian; spin. Best? Labour?

Jeremy Bugler
Blakemere, Hereford

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, John Prescott: sinking fast