In 1954 the New Staesman's biogrphical piece about Clem Atlee stated that the 1945-1951 Labour government ‘contributed almost nothing new or imaginative to the pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature and its environment.’ Amazing as though it may now appear, some contemporary Labour figures of the period were lambasting Atlee’s post-war government for its lack of ambition and for it not being ‘socialist’ enough.
When Labour took office in 1997 Britain was suffering from what Tony Blair was later to describe as a ‘progressive deficit.’ What he meant was that Britain was far from being a modern social democratic nation. The constitution was failing, with Scotland and Wales denied proper government, and hereditary privilege still the foundation of the House of Lords. Unlike many of our European neighbours, Britain lacked quality childcare and universal nursery provision or schools and hospitals with proper equipment and enough well paid staff. In the years up to 1997 Britain was a country that had spent billions of pounds keeping able-bodied people idle because of boom and bust, where unemployment often exceeded three million, and where the absence of a national minimum wage condemned millions to poverty pay. Labour’s mission over the past 10 years has been to address this progressive deficit. On the constitution Britain has now developed as a modern pluralist democracy – devolution for Scotland and Wales, mayors for London and others cities, House of Lords reform, freedom of information and the Human Rights Act. For working people Labour has now delivered progressive rights that many other countries took for granted – a minimum wage, four weeks paid holiday, better maternity and paternity rights, the basic right to join a trade union. For communities and families torn apart by crime, anti-social behaviour, racial intolerance and drugs, Labour has established major programmes of inner city regeneration, excellence in cities for schools, Sure Start, and additional investment in youth and sport facilities.
All of the modernisation has been for a purpose: to renew our public services and keep them faithful to the ethos and values of public service whilst at the same time making them responsive to the individual needs of the people they serve. That is why Gordon Brown's comments in today's FT are so welcome. Brown knows that Britain needs to do more in order to create a patient-centred NHS and a pupil-centred school system. He knows that we need to move beyond a monolithic NHS and a uniform secondary school system if we are to further extend opportunity and social justice.
The challenge for a post-Blair government is to make even more of our progressive agenda irreversible; changes that cannot be rolled back by a future right wing Tory government that wants to dismantle most, if not all, that has been achieved. If we fail to further reform public services then one day the right will come back and demolish the very ethos on which they are built – with more charging, less investment, good services for the well-off and second class services for the rest. Brown also understands that the challenge to the progressive wing of our movement comes not only from a resurgent Tory party but also the defeatists, pessimists and cynics that exist in our own party. The battle (and it is a battle) to transform our public services is not yet won. Public services in Britain are still in the process of being revived and renewed yet there are many in our own party who apparently want to see not revival but reversal.
The truth is that Britain is doing better in 2008 than it was in 1997. We are now a far more progressive country – our constitution, our economy, our public services are all in better shape. We have achieved much in the last 11 years – but much remains to be done.