With all that money, schools and hospitals should be better

The “third stage” is designed to make clear that Brown’s Labour Party will not revert to old tax-and

The dividing lines of the next election are beginning to look clearer. They will be much the same as the dividing lines of the 2005 election and the two elections before that. As before, the battleground will be public services and, in particular, who can best manage the National Health Service and education.

In the days before the Budget, Gordon Brown outlined his plans for a third wave of public-sector reform. The first wave was a major programme of investment and repair, intended to make up for years of Tory neglect; the second was designed to tackle underperformance and variations in standards. In the third stage, according to an article by the Prime Minister in the Financial Times, the government will "not only further enhance choice but also empower both the users of services and all the professionals who deliver them to drive up standards for all". That, translated, means that Tony Blair's reforms will continue under Brown. His "third stage" is intended to make clear that his Labour Party, now trailing 13 points behind the Tories, is not old Labour.

While the government wants Middle England to know that it will not revert to old-style tax-and-spend ways, the Tories are moving fast to reassure the public that any tax cuts they propose would be funded from efficiency savings rather than cuts in front-line services. The Conservatives realise that, if they win the election, they will probably not be able to deliver tax cuts in the next parliament. Nonetheless, it is not so surprising to learn that the Tories have been dusting down Michael Howard's plans to find £12bn of savings, and we can expect Labour to seize on the chance to argue that this Tory leader is no different from his predecessors. It's the same old positioning.

But the real issue is how committed each of the parties is to protecting and improving public services, particularly in a time of deepening financial crisis. David Cameron, though pulling ahead in polls on health, is not yet a convincing advocate of the public sector. Unlike most senior Tories, he and his family have made good use of publicly funded hospitals and schools. But that is not the same thing as political commitment.

In terms of raw numbers, new Labour's record on public spending is impressive. Expenditure on education rose from £42bn in 1997 to £65bn in 2005, an increase of 55 per cent. This is greater even than the 50 per cent rise under the Attlee government. Spending on health rose from 6.3 per cent of GDP to 7.2 per cent, far better than any previous Labour government could claim.

But the British voting public is quite entitled to respond to these figures with a resounding: "So what?" The statistics and percentages showing how money is spent are far less interesting to voters than the delivery of services as they experience it.

Despite vast sums of public investment, our education system remains as divided by class and money as when Labour came to power. State schools have improved, but entry to top universities is still dominated by school leavers from the independent sector. Barely more than 50 per cent of Oxbridge undergraduates are from state schools. And while new hospitals have been built and others refurbished through the Private Finance Initiative, treatment beyond the flashy bolt-on facades is patchy. There is too much evidence of disrespectful and inadequate response to the needs of patients who need health service facilities.

The worst indictment of Labour's nearly 11 years in power is that the gap between rich and poor has grown, and continues to do so. In January, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that income inequality was at its highest level since the late 1940s. The government has to pull a million children out of poverty to reach its own 2010 target. It is hard to find excuses.

The Tories will argue that the government should have put reforms in place before pouring in money. But the left should make this an issue, too. After all, it represents the people who most depend on public services. The question they will ask at the next election is not: "Where has all the money gone?" but "Why has Labour's investment made so little difference to educational aspiration, poverty and inequality?" It deserves an answer.

Pardon his French

A rare reversal of conventional British deference to the French in matters of culture and etiquette: Nicolas Sarkozy, we hear, is undergoing a training regime to prepare for meeting the Queen during his forthcoming state visit. Surely we can expect the current president of the Fifth Republic to know how to behave around a fellow head of state?

Mais non. For unlike some of his predecessors - one thinks particularly of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a man for whom the term de haut en bas could have been invented - the present occupant of the Élysée Palace is thought to lack a certain grandeur and finesse. Texting on his omnipresent mobile phone during an audience with the Pope, for instance, was not terribly presidential. His style, too - the Ray-Ban sunglasses and chunky watches - is considered rather undignified.

One wonders, however, whether any retraining is actually necessary. It's not as though our royal family is the last word in refinement. Prince Philip's bluff interventions have come close to setting off diplomatic incidents on numerous occasions. Prince Andrew's delicate touch at interior decoration led to his marital home being called "Southyork" (after Southfork of Dallas fame), while the Queen's dress sense seems to belong to the same era as that of Dame Edna Everage's late assistant Madge. One way or another, the Sarkozys still seem the height of sophistication. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose . . .

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This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet