About a Roy, by Joseph McHugh

8 Jun 06
Ahead of his CIPFA Conference fringe lecture, Lord Hattersley speaks to Joseph McHugh on getting too cosy with the private sector, the breakdown of the party machine and why he's counting the days to the succession of a certain Mr Brown

09 June 2006

Ahead of his CIPFA Conference fringe lecture, Lord Hattersley speaks to Joseph McHugh on getting too cosy with the private sector, the breakdown of the party machine and why he's counting the days to the succession of a certain Mr Brown

Roy Hattersley, the former Labour Cabinet minister and deputy party leader, cheerfully admits his life has been dominated by the public services. That is why he has agreed to deliver the fringe lecture at CIPFA's annual conference on June 13.

Lord Hattersley, who took his seat in the House of Lords after retiring as an MP in 1997, learned a thing or two about public services during his 33 years in the Commons. Before that, he had a stint on the council in his home city of Sheffield, beginning in 1956, during which he served on the public works committee and later the housing committee.

But while the veteran politician is an avowed lifelong member of the 'Labour tribe' – Hattersley's mother Enid was a Sheffield councillor and served a term as the city's lord mayor – he is aghast at the direction of the prime minister's public service reforms. He sees Tony Blair's flagship policies, such as the introduction of university tuition fees and market-based reforms in the health service, as a betrayal of fundamental Labour principles.

He has not been afraid to criticise Blair personally, accusing him of hijacking the Labour Party and calling for his resignation as prime minister.

Hattersley's fringe appearance promises to be one of the highlights of the conference, a mix of anecdote and reflection that will provide a fascinating insight into five decades on the front line of politics. Ahead of it, he spoke to Public Finance about his personal philosophy, the changes taking place across the public sector – and why Tony Blair should go.

What first drew you into politics?

I delivered leaflets during the 1945 election when I was 11 and I was very much taken with the romance and theatre of politics. I knew I was Labour in the same way I knew I was a Hattersley and supported Yorkshire County Cricket Club. When I was 17 I read RH Tawney's Equality and then I knew why I was Labour. My view hasn't changed over the past 50 years – a good society is an equal society.

So how do you view developments in Labour policy?

I'm reluctant to call myself Old Labour because I've always been a reformer. But, while the party must constantly regenerate itself, it ought to renew itself on the basis of applying fundamental, unchanging principles to new circumstances. The party has renewed itself, which is right, but without proper reverence for its eternal principles, which is wrong.

The role of the state has changed and government is seen by many as an enabler rather than a provider of public services. How do you account for this shift?

I think that in the 1970s, Britain, perhaps following the rest of the world, began to lose its faith in public enterprise and public policy, and began to believe that individuals could make better decisions than the state.

Sometimes that's true, but what's wrong now is that we don't have a formula by which we judge where private provision is best and where public is best.

There has been a concerted effort to increase the use of markets in public services in recent years. Is government giving into the business lobby?

There are some people in government, I won't say who, who are contemptuous of the abilities of the public sector. They think managers in the public sector are incompetent and that, unless the private ethos is injected into public enterprise, the failures will continue. But the ethos of competition doesn't work in the health service, for instance, and for two reasons. One is that where you have competition, you have losers and winners; the other is that those who go into the market with most come out of the market with most.

I also don't think you can make competition work because of the employees. You can't make them feel committed with share options or bonuses. They've got to feel a sense of the public service ethos.

Do you accept that public services need to be reformed or do you think the status quo should remain?

There certainly should be reforms to public services but they should not go down the route of more competition. Investment needs to be directed to the areas of greatest need, which are almost exactly the opposite of the areas that will get most if we work on the competitive ethos. This should involve as much choice and opportunity as possible for the individual.

But I'm careful to say 'as much as possible', because, unless you're very careful, when you operate choice you end up getting the best deal for people who agitate the most – the articulate and the self-confident.

Are there real ideological differences between New Labour and the Conservatives?

New Labour is closely identified with the prime minister and there is very little difference between the prime minister and the progressive wing of the Conservative Party. The basic canon of social democracy is something the prime minister makes a point of denying. I think the ideological divide is narrower than it ever has been in my lifetime, but I think it will open up again.

What will bring that about?

A change of leadership in the Labour Party. There's no doubt that Gordon Brown is a reformer, that he wants a revived and modernised party. I think he wants something new, but something that is distinctly Labour. We are going to see a greater emphasis on dealing with the section of the population submerged in poverty, and a greater emphasis on a more equal society. I am counting off the days.

The government has managed to push through policies such as foundation trusts and tuition fees despite opposition from its own MPs. What does that say about the state of parliamentary democracy?

The extraordinary thing over the past nine years is the way that Tony Blair has made clear he despises the Labour Party, for example with the Education Bill, where he said he didn't care whether the party voted for it because he would get it through on Tory votes.

The extraordinary thing is not that Parliament hasn't been able to exert its will over the government, because that rarely happens, but the way that the government party hasn't been able to exercise its will. That's partly the brilliance with which Blair and Co have taken over the party, partly gratitude that he has led us into the promised land [of government] and partly a process of intimidation.

What message do you want to convey to delegates and those who work in the public services?

There are some of us who still recognise that the public sector is vital to a civilised society and is the most profitable area of the economy. I think the best pound I pay is in my taxes, national and local. My return on the investment is greater in the public sector than it is in the private sector.

Lord Hattersley will give his fringe lecture at the CIPFA conference on Tuesday, June 13


Did you enjoy this article?