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1 October 2001

Second term issues

Labour Conference 2001: 2nd Term Issues - What should Labour have achieved in 2005, when th

By Jackie Ashley

Overview by Jackie Ashley

What is Labour’s second term for? What, come to that, is Labour for these days? The most striking conclusion from the experts we have commissioned is that Labour’s second term must be the time when government stops swaggering and starts acting cleverly – laterally, locally.

That means being able to point to hundreds of secondary schools, all a bit different, each with its own story to tell, which have become noticeably better. It means scores of towns and cities where better bus systems, cycle-ways and trams have helped millions of us to cut down on our car journeys. It means a health service that is judged not simply on the number of new hospital buildings, but on a population that is fitter and better fed, less likely to suffer from poor housing and less addicted to tobacco, alcohol or drugs. It means a party that can say, after another four years of power: “Look around – we have helped you, not simply blathered on about extra billions of pounds or targets or initiatives.”

Labour, even new Labour, has been so in thrall to the romantic memories of the 1940s that it has not really produced a philosophy of government for today. In their hearts, too many senior ministers still think of mass programmes, delivered identically across every part of Britain – a genteel, kindlier version of the Leninist five-year plan, vindicated by slogans on coffee mugs and plastic cards.

This kind of politics is bust. This is now a devolved, pluralist country whose people have been trained by the market to shop around and to be suspicious of grand promises. We can no longer assume that what works for Oxfordshire schools will work in Bradford, too.

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Labour cannot repeat promises similar to those it made in 1997 and just cross its fingers. The electorate is growing cynical – and unless the government can point to large numbers of improved schools, less clogged and polluted urban transport systems, and better-run local health networks, then the cynicism will not be contained. Real achievements, tested in real time, are worth many thousands of abstract national “targets”, which will echo faintly five and ten years into the future.

But there is also an agenda, beyond bread-and-butter governing, that will help shape this administration’s place in history. Tony Blair wants to get us into the euro. Everyone at Westminster has speculated about some trade-off between the Prime Minister and the more eurosceptic Chancellor, Gordon Brown, in which Blair gets the go-ahead for his referendum about a year from now, wins it with Brown’s support, and then resigns in, say, 2004 to spend more time with Leo, while supporting Brown as Labour’s new leader. But all this may be out of the government’s hands. In a downturn, protecting economic stability and the budgets of spending departments would be Labour’s overriding economic objective.

Finally, in these graver times, there is a fight that new Labour never expected: the fight for liberal values, for pluralism and for tolerance. Ha, you may say, that’s hardly one this lot are well-equipped to fight. Maybe so, but this is a decent country, whose government was voted in by decent liberal people . . . and they expect their democracy to be defended in all its aspects.

Transport by Tony Grayling

Transport policy has run into trouble. For the whole of the first term, the government’s macroeconomic strategy meant starving transport of investment, while its insistence on the public- private partnership for London Underground won it no friends. And yet Labour’s first term did lay the foundations of a new transport settlement: the first transport white paper for more than 20 years, the Transport Act 2000, with sweeping new powers; and the £180bn, ten-year transport plan. It was built on a hard-won consensus that Britain should make better use of existing roads, manage the demand for traffic and invest in better public transport.

Transport policy should try to align people’s individual choices with sustainable development. At present, ours fails to do so – and our community will suffer as a result. Evidence from the US suggests that the switch from local and sociable modes of transport, namely walking, cycling and buses, to long-distance and individualised modes, mainly cars, contributes to the decline of communities.

The real trouble with our transport policy is that, dominated as it is by engineers – men with their motorway maps and train sets – it has produced a ten-year plan that is too focused on investment in major road and rail projects. Yet a more people-centred approach can prove extremely successful, as was demonstrated recently by the “TravelSmart” programme in Perth, Western Australia.

Perth, one of the most car-dominated conurbations in the world, identified people who were willing to consider using alternatives to the car for a few journeys each week. Initial contact was made by telephone and followed up by a home visit if necessary. About half the households in the city of South Perth, a community of 35,000, signed up to the project. They were given individual bus timetables and route maps, as well as maps for walking and cycling. Those who had never used public transport got a free trial ticket.

The result was a 14 per cent reduction in car traffic, measured in vehicle miles. Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are down; the population is healthier (because more people walk and cycle); and, with more people out and about on the streets, the community is thriving. Even satisfaction with public transport has improved dramatically.Yet the only physical improvements to the transport system were new bus stops displaying timetables and routes.

Perth shows that ministers who seek salvation in prestige road and rail projects should think local instead, investing in better-value small-scale schemes and soft behavioural policies. The transport agenda for Labour’s second term should be street liveability. Make 20mph the norm (not the exception) in built-up areas, and redesign roads for children, pedestrians and cyclists. That would do more to improve the quality of life than any motorway programme – and would also cut child pedestrian casualties.

Tony Grayling is a transport specialist at the Institute for Public Policy Research (

Poverty by Donald Hirsch

The first Blair administration did some remarkable things for poor people, yet failed to make a (so far) measurable difference to overall poverty. Benefits destined for a young child with parents on income support rose at least 80 per cent in real terms; the poorest pensioners saw their minimum income rise 22 per cent, twice as fast as average earnings. But overall, Labour could not show in 2001 that it had made a dent on poverty in Britain. The number of people in households earning below half the average income stood at 10.7 million in 1999-2000, barely changed from 10.5 million in 1996-97.

One of Labour’s difficulties – but not the whole problem – is statistical lag. First-term Budget measures such as the working families tax credit, which the government estimates take 1.2 million children out of poverty, will not have a full impact on the figures for another year. But for the government to make a decisive difference to poverty trends, let alone meet its ambitious target of halving child poverty by 2010 and abolishing it by 2020, it will have to do far more than let first-term measures run their course.

But that will be difficult for two big reasons. First, in terms of bringing people out of poverty, it has already picked the ripest apples from the lowest branches. Many of the families it has helped rise above half the average income are those already working, who have had extra cash through the working families tax credit, or those who moved into work during the 1990s jobs boom. Families out of work have also had their benefits increased, but not by enough to lift them above the half average income threshold. So further improvements depend largely on getting more people into work. Even without a global slowdown, sustaining the employment growth of recent years would have become trickier, as those remaining on benefits tend increasingly to be those hardest to help.

Second, the government faces underlying long-term trends that have contributed to growing inequality – such as the widening of wage disparities. The best strategy for tackling those trends involves steady increases in the minimum wage, better training, and an emphasis in job schemes on higher-quality, sustainable employment. But that could be undermined by a recession, when public policy tends to focus on getting people off benefits into any job, rather than into good or sustainable jobs.

Alistair Darling’s new Department for Work and Pensions will focus on encouraging lone parents and disabled people to think about working. Hitherto, their benefits did not depend on their seeking a job; now they will have to attend a “work-focused interview” when first claiming support. If large numbers of these groups do move into jobs, the impact on poverty will be significant; but, so far, the numbers do not look promising. Despite the New Deals set up to help them, the reduction in the number of out-of-work claimants was only 2 per cent for disabled people and 11 per cent for lone parents in Labour’s first term.

By continuing to stress the importance of getting a job – any job – as the best route out of poverty, the government risks neglecting the importance of the quality of jobs that people take up. Paradoxically, reducing in-work poverty by topping up low incomes through tax credits – a policy that will be extended in 2003 – can also reduce the pressure to improve job quality, productivity and pay at the lower end of the labour market.

Even by 2005, it may still be too early to judge Labour’s performance in its long-term mission to reduce poverty. But, unlike in 2001, things will need to be moving firmly in the right direction for the strategy to be convincing.

Race relations by Shahid Malik

As blood soaked my face, I watched some of this country’s worst race riots – and awoke to the reality that 21st-century Britain is not the tolerant society I had hoped we were becoming. Yet we have a Labour government more progressive than any other on race and equality. It gave this country its first ethnic minority ministers; introduced a Crime and Disorder Act that recognised racial aggravation in crimes of violence (about 3,000 prosecutions to date); reinstated and reinvigorated Section 11 funding (used for ethnic minority school achievement); and scrapped the primary purpose rule on immigration (which said that one’s main purpose in coming to Britain should not be to settle here). Jack Straw set up the inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s death, which led to the Race Relations Amendment Act.

Despite all this, the battle for hearts and minds has been left lagging behind. So how should the government proceed? First, we must have an honest debate on immigration, and recognise that progressive nations allow “sensible” immigration. Furthermore, we are a rapidly ageing nation and we need young working immigrants if future pensions provision is to be sustainable. The posturings of successive governments on immigration have, via the media, had a drip-drip effect in our living rooms, creating an environment where racism is near-legitimised.

Second, current UK anti-discrimination legislation does not fully recognise our pluralist society; in particular, it does not offer protection to faith communities apart from Jews and Sikhs. Hence you can be discriminated against on grounds of faith (but not race), in employment, delivery of services and provision of goods.

Third, we must do more to combat the propaganda of the far right. In particular, local government must strengthen, refine and develop its communications strategy to dispel myths about ethnic minority communities. The government must assess how it can use existing legislation to curb the activities of the BNP and similar groups: freedom of speech is not an unqualified principle.

Fourth, the government needs to review housing policy. It should focus on housing tenure, creating a mix of private and social housing that takes into account the wide gap between different communities’ purchasing power. Fifth, education policy must minimise segregation. We need a national curriculum that caters for a diverse and pluralist Britain, celebrating the history, cultures and contributions of all its people.

Shahid Malik is a member of Labour’s national executive

Education by Conor Ryan

Labour’s pledge to improve public services will need visibility as well as vision in education by the next election. In its first term, Labour reduced primary school class sizes and improved literacy and numeracy. By the next election, the parents of every three-year-old will have access to a free part-time nursery place for their child. By the summer of 2005, around 1,500 secondary schools will be designated as specialist schools in such areas as sports, technology and arts; many, along with Muslim and Anglican schools, will offer genuine choice to urban parents, though their impact may be more limited in the shires.

Targets help disadvantaged groups most. Excellence in Cities, the government’s urban reform programme, has largely completed its expansion this year, but learning mentors (in-school welfare staff) and programmes for able pupils may become universal.

Vocational education could play an increasingly important role. Those 14- and 15-year-olds with a work-related aptitude will get a mix of school, vocational GCSEs, college-based lessons and more practical experience; proper apprenticeships should be on offer that would bury the 1980s youth training schemes once and for all. If it works, discipline will improve and truancy fall; if not, the anti-vocational, pro-academic elite will find a new voice.

Next year’s spending review will decide how much money education receives. The manifesto pledged further rises as a proportion of GDP. Several hundred new schools should be built or started by 2005.

Will teacher shortages continue to dominate the headlines? Probably not, if the fall in unemployment stops. Moreover, teachers should have a lighter bureaucratic workload (with administrative staff in every large department), above-inflation pay increases each year and, perhaps, an extra bonus after four years in the job. While vacancies outside London currently represent just 1 per cent of posts (and should fall by 2005), they are three times higher in the capital. Unless house prices fall, more help will be needed there with mortgages or low-rent accommodation. But on present trends, the government should meet its national target for 10,000 more teachers in post and 20,000 more classroom assistants.

Further education colleges will hope that the Chancellor provides more money per student, as well as more cash overall. But Treasury officials will be unsympathetic. It is unlikely that the targeted 700,000 extra college students will be recruited conventionally, so individual learning accounts (allowing more part-time, home learning) may become more important. Universities will continue to charge fees, but more bursaries will be available to low-income families, and graduates will have a higher income threshold before student loans have to be repaid.

Despite these improvements, the moans will continue. People will claim that exam standards are falling. The teachers’ unions will find new things to grumble about. And even after unprecedented spending increases, some academics will claim during the election campaign that our schools remain funded “at third world levels”.

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett, education and employment secretary from 1997-2001

Health by Anna Coote

The NHS Plan, published last year, promised to rescue the health service from its perpetual crisis with an injection of £19.4bn over four years. But there has been no let-up in the flow of stories about patients marooned on hospital trolleys and grisly episodes of clinical negligence. The new money is not yet making much impact. The only initiative that has won widespread acclaim is NHS Direct, the telephone advice service.

Ministers should change the basic health policy script so that it bears a passing resemblance to real life. Tony Blair gave a fine rendering of the established line in his undelivered speech to the TUC on 11 September. “I believe in the NHS because we are all of equal worth, every person should be treated with dignity and respect.”

The trouble is that hospitals are not the key to equal worth, or even relief from fear and pain. Blair’s script dramatically short- circuits cause and effect. Never mind midwives, health visitors, community nurses, GPs, physiotherapists, psychotherapists, chiropodists, pharmacists, social workers, care assistants and the great swathe of health-related activity that goes on outside hospitals, affecting far more people. Never mind that people get ill because they are poor, jobless, isolated, depressed, under-educated, poorly fed and housed, too cold in winter, addicted to nicotine or alcohol, forced to breathe foul air or abused by their relatives – none of which has anything much to do with hospitals.

The government should challenge public attitudes, encouraging voters to appreciate the limits to what the NHS in general – and hospitals in particular – can achieve. The routes to better health, to dignity and worth, to equal life chances, are many and varied; the NHS is only one of them. Education, income, employment, housing and safe neighbourhoods are the bedrock of sound health policy.

Ministers should stop saying that their mission is to “save the NHS” and that hospitals are where the action is. The NHS cannot be saved. It will dip in and out of crises as long as people get ill, as long as scientists continue to invent smarter and costlier therapies and cures, as long as we keep on expecting the NHS to provide everything free, as long as we neglect the role of public policy in keeping people healthy, and as long as bigger hospitals continue to be the holy grail.

Joblessness and poverty are bad for health. Hospitals and other NHS facilities are often located in areas of high unemployment, yet have serious staff shortages. The NHS could use its position as an employer and purchaser of goods and services to train local people for health-related jobs and to stimulate local economies.

There needs to be a strong steer from the centre on this. One advantage of the NHS is that it remains a single, state-controlled organisation. But the government must also learn to let go. Local health trusts should have more freedom – within a clear framework – to run their own affairs, to innovate and change, to tailor their services to local requirements. At present, local NHS managers are inundated with guidance; sackfuls of instructions arrive by the week. It is frustrating and demoralising (and probably bad for their health). If the cost of letting go is more variation in health services, that would be more than offset by the positive impact of boosting the morale, creativity and commitment of NHS staff.

Anna Coote is director of the public health programme at the King’s Fund

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