Saturday, October 17, 2009

Purnell is right and Wheatcroft wrong

Labour in government "contributed almost nothing new or imaginative to the pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature and its environment". You may be surprised to learn that these words were not written recently but were part of a 1954 New Statesman biographical piece about Clement Attlee and the 1945-1951 Labour government. Just imagine - contemporary Labour figures lambasting its own government for its lack of ambition and for it not being "socialist" enough. Over 50 years later and the New Statesman has Geoffrey Wheatcroft despairing at the 'moral and intellectual vacuity of the "New Labour agenda." In fairness, it is not simply the usual suspects who are lining up to trash what they see as 12 wasted years of Labour rule. Some ordinary, or what Alastair Campbell might describe as "bog-standard", Labour members and supporters have concerns that "we" haven't done enough, that "we" haven't been radical enough. The problem with this is that in truth most Labour members and supporters have opposing requirements. We want our party to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic: to be a party that proudly honours its past while it shapes it and the nation's future; to champion the state while being part of the market; to tackle poverty but to also support aspiration.

In the same edition of the New Statesman James Purnell responds to Wheatcroft's piece by pointing out that when Labour took office in 1997, Britain was suffering from what Blair later described as a "progressive deficit". 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 12 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, while at the same time making them responsive to the individual needs of the people they serve. We needed to create a patient-centred NHS and a pupil-centred school system, moving beyond a monolithic NHS and a uniform secondary school system. We needed to do this in order to further extend opportunity and social justice.

Purnell is right to point out that all too many of the changes Labour has made these past 12 years - on the constitution, economic policy, the minimum wage and public services - are likely to last. The challenge for future Labour governments 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, of the things that have been achieved. If we fail to further reform public services then one day the Tory 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.

Wheatcroft is wrong and Purnell right. Britain is doing better in 2009 than it was in 1997. We are a more progressive country today than 12 years ago - our constitution, our economy, our public services are all in better shape. We have achieved much in the last 10 years - but much remains to be done.

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