Labour targets Cameron's broken promises on Sure Start

Before the election, Cameron said it was "a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this", but 579 of the childrens' centres have since closed.

Among the content erased from the Conservatives' site last week were David Cameron's pre-election pledges on Sure Start - and with good reason. The day before the general election, Cameron promised to protect the network of children's centres founded by Labour, telling one voter who asked "whether these centres will continue to receive funding": "Yes, we back Sure Start. It's a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this. He's the prime minister of this country but he's been scaring people about something that really matters."

Based on this answer, many reasonably assumed that Sure Start, like the NHS and foreign aid, would be ring-fenced from cuts. Indeed, at PMQs on 2 March 2011, Cameron told the House of Commons that Sure Start funding was protected and that "centres do not need to close". But the truth was otherwise. Shortly after the coalition came to power, the budget for the centres was amalgamated into a new "early intervention grant", which received a real-terms cut of 22.4 per cent.

The result, as I first revealed in 2011, is that centres soon began to close. Today, as Ed Miliband shifts his attention to childcare in the latest stage of his "cost of living" offensive, Labour is rightly highlighting figures showing that 578 have now closed since the election. The Department for Education has responded by insisting that just 45 have closed (which still represents a breach of Cameron's promise), but its own figures suggest otherwise.

Miliband said today: "Millions of parents are facing a childcare crunch. The cost of a nursery place is now the highest in history, at more than £100 a week to cover part-time hours. That means a typical parent doing a part time job would have to work from Monday until Thursday just to cover these costs of childcare. And average costs for a full time place are now rising up to £200 or even more.

"Rising prices have been matched only by falling numbers of places. And hundreds of Sure Start centres have been lost, contributing to a total of 35,000 fewer childcare places under David Cameron. All at a time when the number of children under-4s in England has risen by 125,000.

"Before the last election. David Cameron described Labour as a ‘disgrace’ for warning that the Tories would put Sure Start at risk. He added: 'Not only do we back Sure Start, but we will improve it.'

"This morning they were at it again, boasting that there were more than 3,000 Sure Start Centres across the country. 

"But let’s look at the official government statistics: there are, indeed, 3053 Sure Start Centres. But in April 2010 there were 3,631 Sure Start Centres. That is 578 fewer Sure Start Centres than before the election. That is an average of three Sure Start Centres being lost every single week of this government. And too many of those that remain have lower staffing levels and reduced services."

While the Lib Dems' failure to keep their pledge to vote against higher tuition fees means they are widely derided for their mendacity, the Conservatives have got off lightly so far.  By highlighting the extent to which Cameron misled the public over Sure Start, Labour is rightly seeking to change that.

David Cameron at Demos in January 2010, where he delivered a speech pledging to extend the number of Sure Start centes. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition