Promises, promises

24 Sep 09
Whatever happened to that brave new political dawn? Things really did get better but, as New Labour gathers for its last conference before the election, the public couldn’t be less grateful. Demos’s Jamie Bartlett explains what went wrong
By Jamie Bartlett

25 September 2009

Whatever happened to that brave new political dawn? Things really did get better but, as New Labour gathers for its last conference before the election, the public couldn’t be less grateful. Demos’s Jamie Bartlett explains what went wrong

The dominant theme for Labour’s last party conference before the general election will, fittingly enough, be public services. After all, it was the belief that Tony Blair was the man to transform our schools and hospitals that swept him to power in 1997. The party faithful will be asking themselves if, 13 years later, they did enough. Were the promises of the New Labour project fulfilled?

Listening to anyone involved with the party, you would think the answer is no. All accounts of Labour’s time seem to follow the same basic script. Such is the collective malaise surrounding the party that the answer is already set.  You will have heard it before, and it runs something like this. In 1997, Blair was elected on a wave of profound hope that 18 years of underinvestment was behind us and public services would be fixed. Blair and his chancellor Gordon Brown poured money in – a 55% real-terms increase in less than a decade.

But, well, things never really got much better. Yes, some shiny new hospitals and fancy schools were built, but the quality of the service remains stagnant. Too much time and money was wasted on endless reorganisation and target-setting, which has stopped professionals doing their jobs. At the same time, Blair extended the market reforms of his Conservative predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, with the ­creation of school academies and foundation hospitals, which cost millions of pounds but improved little.

As PM, Brown made an honourable attempt to shift the focus to personalisation and create new forms of citizen involvement, but it was too little, too late. At the end of it all, there was some improvement – from ‘awful’ to ‘adequate’ as Sir Michael Barber put it – but nothing to match the amount of money spent, and certainly not the radical reform Britain had been ­promised in those early, heady days. 

 How ungrateful we are. The reality is that New Labour’s public service achievements are impressive by any measure – even accounting for the increased levels of spending. Monty Python-esque, very few seem willing to recognise it: ‘All right, but apart from the improved literacy, slashed waiting lists, lower crime, better hospitals, what has New Labour ever done for us?’ 

Take a look at the facts. In health, the NHS is in a different place to where it was 13 years ago. There are more hospitals, more beds, more doctors, more nurses and more therapists. No-one now waits more than 12 months for operations.  Waiting times are the lowest for 40 years. As a recent independent assessment of the NHS since 1997 put it, there has been ‘a significant shift of gear, with more and better services’.

The spending bonanza in education (doubling the amount spent per pupil) has led to significant improvements: 100,000 more 11-year-olds are literate and 93,000 more are numerate since 1997. More pupils are achieving good GSCEs, more are going to university than at any time in our history, and more are starting and finishing apprenticeships.  The evidence suggests that – thanks to the Sure Start programme for children, childcare policies and investment in education – we might be on the verge of a great leap ­forward in social mobility. 

Crime, including violent crime, has fallen. Local government is vastly improved – it used to be mostly mediocre and good in places, now it’s mostly good and excellent in places. There were, before the UK felt the brunt of the recession, 1 million fewer people on out-of-work benefits and 600,000 fewer in poverty. Homelessness, and especially rough sleeping, has fallen dramatically. And let’s not forget that Blair, and now Brown, have ­pioneered numerous forms of public involvement, such as participatory budgets and personal budgets in social care, which could in the longer term transform public services for the good of all involved. 

For all the talk of too many targets, it’s hard to imagine these successes happening without some central intervention and direction in the beginning. True, some targets do have unintended consequences, which create media frenzies, but such cases are not ubiquitous.

Moreover, Blair’s ‘voice and choice’ policies helped improve performance and were popular with the public – especially the least well-off. Julian Le Grand, the London School of Economics social policy professor and former Blair adviser, argues this point strongly in his book The other invisible hand.
That’s not to say there haven’t been glaring omissions. Despite the 1997 promise to sort out the funding of long-term care for older people, this area has only been seriously looked at this year. And the deal on public sector pensions could come back to haunt us. Nevertheless, ­Labour ministers can look back proudly on what has been the most sustained improvement in our public services since 1945.  Most importantly of all, Blair and Brown wanted to make public services safe for a generation – and they succeeded.

So why then has public satisfaction with services barely shifted?  The public now trust the Conservatives more than Labour to look after our schools and hospitals, and most surprising of all, more public servants plan to vote Conservative than Labour at the next general election. How have 13 years of improvements gone so seriously wrong? 

First, New Labour over-emphasised government’s capacity to change things. Blair walked into an in-tray full of entrenched social and behavioural problems: binge drinking, teenage pregnancies, antisocial behaviour, drug abuse, low aspirations, massive health inequalities, poor diets and sink estates.  But New ­Labour didn’t see them as the complicated, generational problems that they were. Rather, they were something Whitehall could fix with the right ­combination of idealism, targets and money. 

No problem was too great that it couldn’t be sorted by a strategy paper.  Too many cars on the road? Deputy PM John Prescott promised to have it reduced within five years (he failed). Highest levels of teenage pregnancies in Europe? Our National Teenage ­Pregnancy Strategy will see to that (it failed).
Not only had the world got infinitely more complex in the 18 years Labour was out of government, but the public sector itself had become far more fragmented as a result of the Thatcher and Major years. 

Tackling obesity with a combination of management consultants and what remained of post-war PM Clement Attlee’s clunking levers was always going to be nigh on impossible. That is why, when we review whether public service improvements translated to changes in people’s lives, the results are not as positive. As the recent report on schooling by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development illustrates, the UK is one of the most generous states in terms of support for young people as they grow up. But it also has among the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, drug-taking, drunkenness and people not in education, ­employment or training.

Blair, with a weakened state at his disposal, immediately created a myriad of new departments, targets, visions, delivery bodies and improvement agencies. But they didn’t quite work, so stricter targets were needed and new ‘delivery’ bodies were set up. Blair was known to pace up and down Number 10, exclaiming: ‘Why don’t they understand? Why can’t they move more quickly?’ and so it went.

In the end, New Labour has set up and dismantled 40 different institutions. The predictable result is police overwhelmed with targets, social workers spending half their time behind a screen and £35bn being spent on various quangos. The public rightly doesn’t think this is a good use of public money and frontline staff are fed up with it all.

Secondly, there is New Labour’s obsession with presentation. This is understandable post-Michael Foot, whose appearance rather than leadership qualities dominated headlines in the 1980s. But this obsession with managerialism and ‘delivery’ has seeped into every corner of the public sector. I don’t mean good old-fashioned Alastair Campbell spin, I mean the generation of public servants who seem to think that the following job advert (for the ‘director of digital engagement’) is okay: ‘Re-engineering the digital services offered from tactical level web publishing of content to strategic digital support delivering effective online communications aligned to audience needs and clear objectives – throughout the policy lifecycle’. I’m not sure that even the person who wrote this knew what it meant, but it uses managerial words like ‘effective’ and ‘policy life cycle’, so it must be good. 

George Orwell, in his 1946 essay, ­Politics and the English Language, ­lamented the way in which ‘euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’ was blunting political discourse. Looking back now, 1946 seems like a golden age of clarity and crispness.  Anyone who has read a public sector strategy document bursting with empowered citizens, joined-up government, systemic innovation and personalised services will share with Orwell ‘a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy… who has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself’.

This is not a joke. It has left the public disconnected, and it reflects heavily on how we feel about public services. When people were asked by Ipsos Mori which words they thought characterised public servants today: ‘bureaucratic’, ‘­infuriating’ and ‘faceless’ were the top three. 

Finally, Labour became trapped by its own model of delivery. It was so fixated on securing the middle classes and had such a ruthless focus on producing various outcomes that it didn’t really ask what public services were there for in the first place. As Matthew Taylor, former chief strategist to Blair, is fond of saying: ‘Evidence-based policy making has been replaced with policy-based ­evidence-making.’

As the world evolved after 1997, New Labour didn’t – and buried its head in the sand. We have the new hospitals, but how do they help us with obesity or long-term chronic conditions? Is the aim to get children five good GCSEs, or instil a love of learning and high aspirations? Was the aim to create a welfare system that encouraged self-reliance, or make sure jobcentres got enough people signed on to the Flexible New Deal?  New Labour never really solved the puzzle of the role of public services in the twenty-first century.

If Thatcher’s greatest legacy was Blair and now Brown, so New Labour’s is Cameron and his progressive Conservatives. Our public services will almost certainly survive both the recession and a Conservative government. New Labour’s success has been to forge a consensus on public sector spending levels so strong that Cameron has promised to ring-fence NHS spending in the middle of a record public spending deficit. That is actually quite remarkable.

But, at the same time, Labour’s failures have allowed the Tories to put together a powerful – and classic Conservative – critique of the limits of state intervention, taking aim at the spiralling bureaucracy that doesn’t connect to ­people’s day-to-day lives.

As Labour heads back into the blissful purity of opposition, the internal debate about the future of public services will go to the heart of what it means to be ­Labour today. The unresolved conflict between strands of liberalism and socialism are already returning. Labour MPs James Purnell, the former work and pensions secretary, and Jon Cruddas, who stood for deputy leader in 2007, have been engaged in an open media debate about whether the party should be about freedom and individual empowerment or solidarity and equality. The former is agnostic about whether that can be achieved through the state or the market, while the latter is emphatically not. 

What the past 13 years have shown us is the overwhelming power of good public services to create real opportunities for people, but also that the state can’t force people to take them: we need to do that for ourselves.

It is that blind spot that has allowed the Conservatives to seize the moment. The party now needs to work out what role the state should play to help people live lives of their own choosing, individually and collectively. And above all, it will need an ambitious, but honest, language that reflects that.

Jamie Bartlett is head of the independence programme at the think-tank Demos

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