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31 July 2000

The end of the Project?

We know what old Labour thinks of the government. But what about the ur-new Labourites? Anne McElvoy

By Anne McElvoy

We’re lacking in integrity, but full of good intentions, seen as soft on crime, but itching to swell the prisons with muggers. Widely loathed but worthy of affection, diffuse but determined, distrusted but trustworthy, we are a government so determined to be loved that any sign of disenchantment induces in us a state of paranoia.

The revelations of anguished sleeve-plucking and self-flagellation in Downing Street have laid bare doubts about the stability of new Labour as a distinct political construct. If the generals of new Labour are so confused about the state the Project is in, what hope is there for the poor bloody infantry?

More than the content of the leaks, what worries me is that ministers deny their impact and fail to engage with the issues they raise. The two most common responses from ministers and advisers over the past fortnight have been “They were written in April [in Tony Blair’s case] and May [in Philip Gould’s] and things have got better since then” and “Never mind, the comprehensive spending review has come along to save us”.

On the first point: bombast and evasion are turning people off new Labour, and we should not yet consider this problem solved. All ministers should remember the eerily prophetic lyrics of Kirsty MacColl: “You had so many friends/They all left you in the end/’Cos they couldn’t take the patter.”

Second, the concentration on the spending announcement as a panacea for new Labour’s problems is defensible only if all we care about is re-election. The commitment to increase substantially spending on health, education, crime prevention and transport is a real advantage over the Tories, whose own plans and costings for the public services remain nebulous. Barring a plague of frogs and locusts, new Labour will form the next government whenever Blair chooses to go to the polls.

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But isn’t there supposed to be more to new Labour than that? A lot of senior people in and around the government think not. Great tranches of the Labour Party, MPs and ministers see the whole edifice as a means to getting a battered but valiant party into power, thereafter to do what they think Labour is there to do – raise taxes and spend the money on public services any old how.

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The time has come for all good Blairites to come to the aid of the party. Not as one glum insider begged me a fortnight ago by “just being totally bloody supportive for once”, but by articulating our faith in a continuation of the modernised, electable centre-left.

Under Blair, the Labour Party has set out to re-examine the relationship between the citizen and the state. That is why it is so scary to Conservatives, who thought that they would continue to hold the ace of being the party that dared to reform the public sector. Unlike Conservatism, new Labour is dismayed that a country which has become steadily more prosperous is dogged by patchy health and education services, poor infrastructure and too many unacknowledged barriers to opportunity.

There is vast potential in this intersection between a post-Thatcherite settlement and the progressive instincts that Thatcherism could never destroy. We ur-new Labourites were the people who fell on the Labour side of the electoral divide, but never felt convinced by Neil Kinnock or John Smith. For the first time, in 1997, “our” party won.

Then what? My first sense of unease was the revelation that a lot of the policy-shapers considered very tame ideas to be earth-shattering. How many conversations did I have with people who were supposed to deliver local schools that inner-city parents could send their children to with confidence, only for them to assure me that you could drive up standards without changing failing structures? How many told me that local education authorities weren’t the problem? Roughly the same number who, in year four of the Blair government, are busily carting off the same LEAs to the knackers’ yard and bringing in private management.

We had Frank Dobson claiming that the NHS’s problems could be mastered with a wink and a smile, followed by the winter 1999 panic, followed by Alan Milburn’s pronouncements that public-private partnership was undesirable on the unenlightening grounds that “it means more private and less public”, followed by the Prime Minister saying on Question Time that he didn’t give a monkey’s who provided the services as long as people got treated, followed by Milburn’s recent announcement of a concordat on public-private partnership in providing healthcare. Why couldn’t they have concorded in the first place?

Old Labour’s only complaint about the spending splurge was that it took so long to happen. The more substantial concern is that this is an administration so (rightly) obsessed by delivery that it has only now been able to think strategically in central areas about what it wants to deliver.

All governments neglect to do things fast enough in certain areas. But the late start on reforming the public services is not incidental. It is the product of a mindset that is far less brave on innovation than it thinks it is; is too insistent that where new Labour is right now, this minute, is the acceptable place to be; and that anyone who thinks a few steps ahead, or on a different model, is being perversely difficult.

Yes, by all means spend £43bn or more on the public services and bet the political house on it. Fine by me. But this should have come at the end of a far more wide-ranging review of what sort of hospitals, schools and police service we want. There is an infuriating tendency, when you put this to key Blairites, to get oxymoronic answers such as “quality services responsive to our needs”.

But how? What is the point in answering questions about the future of the NHS with a proclamation of how it fits with “our values”? Does that mean we can or cannot envisage hospitals run by private management where this is more efficient? At the moment, the government is wasting unnecessary time and resources on partial or intermediate solutions.

One of the most depressing things I have heard in recent weeks from a very senior minister was “£13bn – you get a bloody good health service for that sort of money”. No, you don’t. The NHS could eat up that sort of money without a burp. You get a bloody good health service when you have decided which services can reasonably deliver a universal guarantee to every citizen, and when you have decided how you want to pursue this and the more elastic demand beyond it.

For all the bright confidence on health spending, I very much doubt that a purely tax-funded NHS will be intact in ten years’ time. Eventually, the government will conclude where it should have started – namely, that the challenge of health provision is to find the best way to guarantee high-quality core services, supplemented with insurance and/or savings schemes. If you abominate this as a “two-tier” NHS (in fact, it would be multi-tier), consider the German system, which is far more diverse than the NHS, and provides a standard of care for serious illnesses reliably higher than in Britain.

Similarly, I believe that comprehensive schools (as we understand the term today) will no longer be the dominant model of secondary-school provision by the year 2010. So why does David Blunkett pander to the old demons of envy by predicting the demise of grammar schools? Unless he is playing a semantic game, the very opposite is likely. There will be more schools run by different kinds of institution, with far more freedom to set their own admission policies.

In February 1999, I wrote a piece in the New Statesman questioning whether new Labour was really thinking the unthinkable. Well, we’re getting there, in a British Rail sort of way. Looking over it now, I would say that the government is making progress on health and education, but too nervously. On welfare, it coasts too much on the back of a tight labour market. The New Deal is a jolly good literacy and numeracy catch-up for people failed by bad schools, but it is self-delusion to see it as a particularly effective way of getting the reluctant into work, let alone keeping them there.

Foolish optimist that I was, I called for more decentralisation and the introduction of a primaries system into local elections to tackle voter apathy. Progress report: retrograde. On defence, my call to reassess our commitment to the horrendously expensive nuclear deterrent has been roundly ignored, although it makes far more sense to be a unilateralist now than it did in the 1980s.

I wanted less emphasis on redistribution of wealth and more on redistributing opportunity. Blair now speaks with a confident meritocratic voice. Yet his ideal of a fairer chance for the talented still lies about in an untidy little heap, which is why he was so cross with Gordon Brown’s Laura Spence outburst, but was not able to offer anything substantial in its place.

As for my final plea that we should ditch the bid to host the 2006 World Cup because we would a) go out in the second round and b) be subjected to our own England fans – there’s one hope effortlessly fulfilled.

What I didn’t foresee was the government’s mounting trouble in recognising what is important and what is not. I honestly can’t remember where we now stand on persuading models not to be too thin, or on drunks and cashpoints, let alone what the zillion task forces were supposed to do.

We are getting somewhere under this government, and we will get a lot further under the next. The mould was broken in 1997, and it will not be repaired by the election of 2001/2. The young American conservative Ramesh Ponnoru admits in National Review that the Clinton years were a triumph, “since, whatever they may say, conservatives know in their bones that . . . at a level of politics deeper than the fortunes of political parties, the ground is shifting away from them; the 2000 election will be a ratification of Clintonism, even if the Republicans win”.

The larger trajectory of the Blair years will probably look the same. It is a battle, but we are becoming a more tolerant, less hidebound, fairer country. We are raising the expectations of so many people neglected for too long and are getting more broad-minded about the ways to achieve this. The trouble is that in politics, as in life, you never have as much time as you think.

What is new Labour for? It is for transforming. Anything else is a waste of time.

Anne McElvoy is associate editor of the Independent