Labour still has one life left

The centre-left is not in the moribund state some imagine

"Conservatives have sat around for some years saying to themselves that they will get back one day, but there is no necessary reason why this should be so. No law of history says that any political party has to survive."

That was Geoffrey Wheatcroft's strangely unprophetic warning in 2005, in his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Four years later, few people are still predicting that. So, if Geoffrey Wheatcroft's psephological skills are still as sharp, his article predicting the end of the Labour Party is good news. But Wheatcroft doesn't actually argue that, he just asserts it. Instead, his argument is that Labour doesn't deserve to win again, because we failed to do what we promised.

Oddly, to judge what we promised, Wheatcroft doesn't use our manifesto, but instead uses Will Hutton's prediction of what a Labour government should do. I think Labour would have done well to follow many of Will's arguments - in particular, we should have pressed on with electoral reform despite our landslide. But mistaking The State We're In with the 1997 Labour party manifesto is an odd kind of myopia. Will Hutton didn't write the manifesto. Alastair Campbell's Diaries record how, in January 1996, Tony Blair thought "he was on to something with the stakeholder economy idea", Hutton's concept, but then moved away from it after internal disagreements.

Wheatcroft wants to judge Labour's record by what he wishes it had been, rather than by what we said it would be. That's not surprising. Compared to what we said, the record is good. On education, we promised smaller class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds. No mention of SureStart, academies or getting more young people to university. Results improved, too. In his fascinating book Instruction to Deliver, Michael Barber records how there had been no improvement in numeracy and literacy between 1948 and the 1994. Yet, in the three years after 1997, the proportion reaching the literacy standard went up from 63 per cent to 75 per cent - and numeracy improved, too.

In health, we promised to cut waiting lists by 100,000. No mention in 1997 of cutting waiting times to a maximum 18 weeks, which has been achieved through a mixture of top-down targets and bottom-up competition. The 1997 manifesto promised devolution, the Human Rights Act, a national minimum wage - and all have been done. It didn't promise to help 600,000 children escape poverty, massively increase aid spending or allow gay marriage. But all those have been done, too.

I suspect many readers' eyes will have started to glaze over at some of those achievements. Mine do, when I read them. There's something deadening about "deliverology" as Barber calls it. So, results are dull. But they are what matters. If waiting lists grow, or poverty rises, under a future government, then Labour's record will become more impressive.

But there's another important point to note. The Conservatives have had to accept key parts of Labour ideology. When, in 1995, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argued for measuring poverty relative to the income of others, Peter Lilley launched an attack on the very concept. Today, David Cameron has to accept that poverty is relative - in effect, enshrining the concept of equality as a benchmark of a good society. He also has to accept that people want good public services, free at the point of use.

Following Cameron's speech on 8 October, there is a clear disagreement about how to achieve this better society - between the Conservatives who want to shrink government, and Labour which wants to reform it. But we should welcome as a compliment the Tories' need to agree with us on the need to reduce poverty and inequality.

Wheatcroft seems to resent Labour's having learned any lessons from the 1980s. He wishes for a Labour Party that is against enterprise, against civic duty, against wealth creation. Finally, he betrays himself by admitting his nostalgia for old Labour.

That's the nostalgia of people on the right who preferred a Labour Party that lost elections. It's also the false thinking that we have to be out of power to be principled. Both are dangerous - there's nothing principled about leaving people to die on hospital trolleys or unable to learn. The principled thing was not to stay in opposition, full of impotent protest, but to win and improve those public services. But, as Michael Barber says, even after those reforms, many services have only been moved from awful to adequate, a few to good. That is no mean feat, but not enough to have people dancing in the streets.

The history of the past 30 years can be seen as Labour learning to accept efficiency and markets, and then the Tories accepting social justice. The next phase looks set to be an argument about what kind of government can best deliver those goals.

Cameron's argument that the credit crunch was caused by big government already feels tendentious. The cause was under-regulated markets. The solution was big government - huge, globally co-ordinated government. So, on the economy and on public services, centre-left ideas look to be on the up. There's therefore no reason why the Labour Party shouldn't be able to renew itself, too. For all our current difficulties, it's a bit early to predict the strange death of Labour England.

James Purnell was the secretary for work and pensions until his resignation in June 2009

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England