Hurrah for Harriet

There is an alternative to drifting into horrendous defeat, but Labour must seize the moment. The pa

You have to hand it to her. Harriet Harman has really shown how to use No 10 as a platform from which to direct policy. You may not agree with how she presented her programme, but, for the first time since 2005, there has been a real sense of direction and priorities from the government.

It was much needed. Morale among Labour MPs could not be lower, with many refusing to contemplate the extent of the slaughter awaiting us at next year's general election and sandbagging ourselves in with yet more constituency casework. In our hearts we know that this will not save us, but, with nothing else on offer, what are MPs in swing seats with majorities of less than 12,000 to do?

Peter Mandelson and Alistair Darling also had their hours deputising in the best political shop in the country, but what Harman established this summer was that there is an alternative. Admittedly, Andrew Adonis, the newest member of the cabinet, had shown her how to do it. Only a few weeks ago, he laid before us a vision of a high-speed Britain with the major centres of population linked by a new rail network. Simply a vision, yes: but vision is what the government has lacked during this parliament.

Harriet similarly seized her moment at No 10 to tell the country what she believes. If the Prime Minister considers how his understudies have performed, he may recognise that the Harman-Adonis model is not only the right thing for a left party in government to do, but that it might also reduce the number of seats lost at the next election. Adopting such a strategy would transform morale among his high command as well as the Parliamentary Labour Party, and such enthusiasm in the past has proved infectious, rippling out from Westminster into our constituencies.

Gordon Brown might begin by considering the implications of recent figures that detail not only a fall in productivity in the public sector, but a converse rise in the private sector. Since 1997, public-sector productivity has fallen by 3.4 per cent (compared to a rise of 23 per cent in the private sector). Could this not prompt the Prime Minister to kick-start the revolution Labour intends to implement, and for which it will seek a mandate for the next parliament?

What would this productivity revolution mean for taxpayers? If, over the life of the government, productivity in the public sector had matched that in the private sector, the £670bn public-sector output could now be gained at a £516bn cost to taxpayers.

Here, surely, is the starting point for each major spending department. To deliver similar productivity gains to those of the private sector would bring about a transformation of Labour's thinking, which has, so far, been obsessed by inputs, with an almost criminal disregard of outputs.

Gordon Brown's holiday reading probably also included the news that a growing number of children completing primary school remain illiterate. This should fire the starting gun for a revolution in our schools. What value is there in promoting children to the next stage of learning if they have not gained the skills necessary to negotiate successfully the syllabus for the following year?

The Prime Minister should instruct his closest mate, Ed Balls, to encourage schools to promote children only when they have acquired skills, rather than by their age alone. This policy could only be enacted in the next parliament, but, to an electorate concerned about education, the sign that the government is willing to learn from experience, and not simply deny the truth, would again be an attractive electoral attribute.

Pensions, too, demand a revolution that must be long-term. The current strategy is in turmoil. The plan is to spend an additional 5p on the standard rate of tax on reforms that will, absurdly, still leave 40 per cent of the workforce to retire into poverty. There is no way the money will be forthcoming for such a broken-backed reform.

The Pension Reform Group insists that having a funded scheme around the state's pay-as-you-go operation is the only way to abolish pensioner poverty. This could set the government on course to reducing the current £15bn bill for means-testing pensioners, and phase out, over a couple of decades, the £30bn in tax receipts spent each year on subsidising pensions.

The government would not only be restructuring the public accounts, thereby keeping down long-term interest rates, but it would also show that radical goals such as abolishing pensioner poverty can be achieved in an age when public expenditure - the means-test bill and the tax subsidy - is ruthlessly and necessarily cut.

We must communicate such a strategy effectively, of course, which takes me back to the lesson Harriet set out for us all. She has shown that there is an alternative to simply drifting into the most horrendous defeat. Building on the lines laid down so well by Andrew Adonis, the cabinet must draw up a single objective for each department, to be implemented now. Nothing could better transform the rock-bottom morale of the PLP, and - who knows? - voters might actually like to see what a re-elected Labour government would do after the May general election.

Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead (Labour) James Macintyre is away

Frank Field has been Labour MP for Birkenhead since 1979. From 1997 to 1998 he was Minister for Welfare Reform

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?