If the party chatter at Labour conference was all politics – would Gordon survive or would Miliband the Elder step aside for the much-favoured Miliband the Younger? – the Tories are in full wonk mode. “What should we do about the Educational Maintenance Allowance?” is the kind of question they’ll be asking over the canapés in Manchester. Or: “How will the pupil premium work?”
Economic policy is at the fore, and it is frankly the area in which the Conservatives have the most work to do. But public service reform runs a close second. The reforming Tories clustered around David Cameron and George Osborne are determined to pick up where Tony Blair left off. Many of these bright young things are undisguised admirers of Blair, but they think he was too slow in seeing that real reform in the public sector means giving power away, rather than setting targets from the centre. The reason Blair had “scars on his back” from trying to reshape the public services is that he fell into the trap of attempting to run schools and hospitals from his sofa in Downing Street. So his first parliamentary term was wasted.
Heirs to Blair
The new Conservative/old Blairite mission is to use consumer choice to produce better, fairer public services. The idea is to create what the New Labour academic Julian Le Grand has called “quasi-markets” – but then rig these markets in favour of the poor. Labour made a start in both health and education, with foundation hospitals and academy schools. But then Blair ran out of road. Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, wants to give choice to parents over which school to send their children to, with money following the pupil wherever he or she goes. But crucially, he also plans to weight the choice in favour of the least advantaged by giving them a “pupil premium”. Parents will also be able to use the money to set up their own schools, although few are expected to do so. The National Curriculum will be slimmed down. Head teachers will get much more power over pay and rations.
Tory education policy is an example of undiluted Blairism. It chimes perfectly with Cameron’s calls for a “radical redistribution of power” and with the call in Leading from the Front, a new pamphlet from Demos, for more discretion and power to be given to front-line public servants. Conservative plans to give local councils greater authority are another part of the drive for more diversity, competition and accountability.
Three years ago, one of Cameron’s inner circle said to me: “We’ll win when we become New Labour, and Labour ceases to be New Labour.” On education, both demands have been met. Labour still talks the language of reform here, but is back to tinkering from the centre. On these pages, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, has said he doesn’t need think tanks to work out that there is a “false choice between heavy-handed statism which does not respect individual choices and a so-called progressive liberalism that sees the state as the enemy of individual freedom”. But this is the minister who made cooking classes mandatory in every school, and even gave his own recipe suggestions (shepherd’s pie and apple crumble); the minister who, in July, made home-school agreements compulsory; the minister who wants state checks on parents giving the neighbours’ kids a lift to Scout meetings.
The Tories have ring-fenced spending on the National Health Service – instead of education, which would make more sense – and have opposed many Labour reforms aimed at giving more power to patients. They appear willing to give up some of Labour’s hard-won ground to GPs on out-
Luddite on health
The politics of this are obvious. As part of the detoxification of the Tory brand, it was vital to be seen as a friend of the NHS. Tory high command knows the media would love to run “Tories to privatise health service” stories. The Tories know, too, that they will have to fight the teachers’ unions to get their education reforms through, and have calculated that they can’t afford to fight the health unions at the same time. They don’t want a war on two fronts.
But they are now in danger of losing some political credibility. While Lansley blows kisses at the doctors, the Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, is pushing ahead with reform. As well as giving patients the right to choose their own GP, he is driving individual budgets for social care and shifting resources into preventative health.
It is a reflection of the weird, refractive nature of current politics that the Conservatives are Blairite on education and Luddite on health, while Labour is regressing on schools reform but still heroically wrestling with the NHS.
When the Tories win next year, they will need a true moderniser in health care: someone with impeccable reformist credentials, a reputation for strong departmental management and a willingness to fight the trade unions. How about Peter Mandelson?
Richard Reeves is director of Demos