We must be the party of radical public service reform, says John Woodcock

The immediate aftermath of a very bad election result is not the ideal time for Labour to produce radical, worked up plans to transform our public services. So we probably shouldn’t be too surprised that none of our leadership candidates has come up with anything to set the contest alight. One or two decent ideas have been floated. The proposal by my favoured candidate David Miliband to mutualise the BBC is pretty good, but it is not the humdinger to win us back the south of England.

There are good reasons why new ideas are thin on the ground:

a) The public just told us they didn’t like us very much. Working out why and what we should do is a fairly major undertaking, and big picture needs to come before detailed policy proposals;

b) Not all members of this great Labour and trade movement of ours are necessarily battering down the door of our leadership candidates to demand they pledge faster and bolder public service reforms as a condition of securing their vote;


c) The new government is rattling out plans for massive upheaval at an alarming rate for which they cannot claim to have any mandate, having hidden most of them throughout the election campaign. Working out how to deal with that is understandably taking up the majority of people’s time and energy.

The importance of the last point should not be under-estimated. If a new minister presents a leadership candidate (or anyone with an eye on the forthcoming shadow cabinet elections for that matter) with an over-hasty reform programme reversing Labour’s achievements in office, they are unlikely to get a pat on the back and an offer to babysit the kids while they work late in the department.

‘Vote for Mr or Mrs Consensus because they agree with the hated Tories you’ve just sweated blood against on the doorstep’ is not quite as enticing a strap-line as ‘Vote for Mr or Mrs Heavyweight – they are hitting those bastards where it hurts’.

I am not adversely criticising anyone for acting in this way. For one thing, a lot of the new government’s plans are shockingly rushed and retrograde. And what’s more, after the battering we took in the election, we need leaders with the balls to show that we can pick ourselves up off the floor and fight. And, of course, Harriet and Yvette have been among the most ballsy, though I am sure Harriet could justifiably have the balls off anyone who expressed themselves in such an unimaginatively male-centric way.

But, election battle cries aside, if we want to look like a government in waiting, we had better emerge from this contest with a renewed appetite for the kind of difficult changes to public services that will improve the lives of the people we serve.

New Labour undoubtedly made mistakes on public service reform. But we were at our best in government when we showed we were resolutely on the side of the users of public services and when we avoided being captured by the concerns of the producers of those services, valid though those concerns may have been.

Controversial though it may still be, patient choice and the use of private and voluntary sector providers were instrumental in driving down waiting times in the NHS: compare the less impressive improvements elsewhere in the UK where they were not so bold in shaking up the mix of provision.

When we drove through radical change in public services to give more power to consumers, the Conservatives were at a loss. They repeatedly retreated to the role of concerned staffroom confidantes sympathetically tutting their agreement about how beastly all this upheaval was.

Labour must avoid the temptation of slipping into that staffroom chair if the Tories vacate it now that they are in power. Those who were once proud to be change-makers must never be content to become the party of the status quo.

We should be highly suspicious of the Conservatives’ sudden announcement (for it is a Tory announcement, the Lib Dems who find themselves supporting it seem utterly bewildered) to transfer enormous resources into the hands of GPs without setting out credible mechanisms to bolster the power of individual patients who will be affected by them.

Yet, if we are not careful, we could end up with a situation where the Tories champion their own favoured bunch of producers, we champion ours (often the ones with the votes in Labour ballots), and the patient finds themselves with no effective champion at all.

Tony Blair may have got away with being unimaginative on public service reform when he was in opposition. But the country has moved on since then.

Now, if the British people detect that we no longer have the zeal to embrace real and difficult change to our schools, hospitals, and welfare system, they may not show any great zeal for renewing their embrace of us.

John Woodcock is the Labour Co-op MP for Barrow and Furness.

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10 Responses to “We must be the party of radical public service reform, says John Woodcock”

  1. The unspoken assumption here is that radical public service reform is the sort of thing that will win back the south of England for us. Which I find doubtful. Having lived in the south all my life, I’ve never heard anybody say, “I am fantastically keen of New Labour’s bold plan of public service reform, which is the sort of thing that will win my vote for at least thirty years.” I have never heard anything remotely similar to that.

    What I have heard is quite a lot of long-term Labour supporters saying more or less the exact opposite, but with added cursewords. I have heard endless complaints from public sector workers about the inefficiency and bureaucracy of PFI. I have heard a mixture of vitriol and weary disdain.

    We won sixty seats in the south-east, south-west and East Anglia in 1997, so I’m far from convinced that winning back the south is something Labour needs to worry about that much – the Midlands merits more consideration. Those bits that we can win, however, are culturally left, often quite dependent on the public sector and not about to be won over by reheated Blairism. They fell out of love with that long ago.

    Ditch the pointless rhetoric about choice – people want one good choice, not three shoddy ones – and find some new programmes for Labour’s centrists to organise around. The old ones will not work.

    And while you’re thinking of one, stop making sweeping statements about the south. It’s a region containing 20 million people (nearly 30 if you include London) with wide internal differences, so wide generalisations without evidence just make it sound like you know nothing about it. Some acknowledgement that Waveney, for example, is different from Swindon which is different again from Medway would be much appreciated. As would some acknowledgement that there’s only a relatively small part of the south which it’s worth aiming policy at, as most of the rest will always remain unwinnable. Spread your aim too wide and you actually just alienate the parts we can win, both in terms of constituencies and (more saliently) in terms of wards for upcoming council elections.

  2. Adam White says:

    Edward: spot on!

  3. james says:

    John, this article is even more embarrassing than the one about “flexible” labour markets.

  4. Jako says:

    Controversial though it may still be, patient choice and the use of private and voluntary sector providers were instrumental in driving down waiting times in the NHS: compare the less impressive improvements elsewhere in the UK where they were not so bold in shaking up the mix of provision.

    John, could you link to this evidence? I always thought that Labour’s spending rises for providing more hospitals, beds, doctors and nurses must have been the fundamental factor in bringing waiting lists down.

    A link to some evidence that choice in public services is a priority for the public would be appreciated. You seem to posit that this is an accepted truth but I’d like to see the proof.

    Also, you should reply to Luke Akehurst’s post which disagrees with you. It’s not necessary to be a Labour leftie to suspect that your policy position is tired, out-of-touch and unhelpful for the party.

  5. U Nimpressed says:

    “Controversial though it may still be, patient choice and the use of private and voluntary sector providers were instrumental in driving down waiting times in the NHS:”

    …….looked at the impact on health inequalities?

  6. Daniel says:

    John, I think you are right in you call for us to pursue a new reform agenda.

    There is a line of thinking in the party that says New Labour is dead Blair has gone we can go back to they ways things were (whatever that really means). The fact of the matter is that productivity declined in the NHS despite the many improvements. We made improvements but they were not commensurate with the increase in funding. This is largely thanks to the reluctance from many quarters to move away from anything that differed from a centralised model for Health care.

    The annoying and perplexing thing is that as a labour party we have a great hinterland of alternative ideas. I note that you have been elected as Labour Cooperative MP. And I think the Labour party needs to rediscover mutualism and a model for delivering all kinds of services – a model that has the ability to realise the benefits of both private and public sector delivery. We also need to ask what can be delivered at local authority rather than state level.

    That said, I am not clear whether choice is the most important aspect or driver of reform. However, if we are to win again we need to come up with compelling and comprehensive policies that address the shortcomings of the last Labour government. A consensus has formed with the public that while improvements may have been made by the Labour government, these were only achieved by overspending and waste. I do not agree with this point of view but it is the one that is starting to stick. It is only by developing a new vision and one that is not wedded to particular mode of delivery, that people will think we are credible again.

    So to the critics of John’s article I say this: Question the choice based model but do not question our need to develop a programme of reform and renewal.

  7. james says:

    Daniel – You say “There is a line of thinking in the party that says New Labour is dead Blair has gone we can go back to they ways things were (whatever that really means)”

    It might mean having a critique of privatisation. Privatisation isn’t very popular with the general public – it’s easy for most people to understand that profit-maxismising firms will attempt to make profit rather than provide a good public service. Public services should serve the public, not serve as a form of corporate welfare.

    Also, can I recommend you read Luke Akehurst’s article, http://www.labourlist.org/public-services-improvement-doesnt-always-need-reform-

  8. Daniel says:


    Thanks for your comment and the link I found Lukes article interesting. And I agree with the idea if it “aint broke don’t fix it”. But it only applies if it aint broke. The problem is I think that in its current form the health service cannot continue to improve without reform or certainly not do so without huge amounts of additional funding. I would restate the point about productivity in the health service – we spend more money for decreasing amounts of benefit. This does not mean I favour privatisation (I actually think privatisation is an unhelpful epithet – it seems to cover anything and everything from state sell-offs to cleaning contracts). I think we need to look at a much broader range of ownership and control models to help us deliver public services which are both responsive and accountable to the people the serve and most importantly deliver value for money. I am not clear that the current model does.

    Can I ask what your objection is to private companies providing public services – is it that you think they don’t deliver or simply that it is wrong for an organisation to profit while delivering a public service?

  9. I have to echo james here.

    Most people do not want choice. Don’t be so damned silly.

    I live in a town of 20,000 people with one comprehensive school. A town this size can only sustain one secondary school. It matters not a jot if people have the “choice” for their kids to go to the school in the next town, because that will mean long travelling times they they don’t want their kids to do. They want OUR school to be good, and “choice” does not do that.

    Similarly for hospitals. The county where I live has three hospitals (two acute hospitals and one tertiary hospital). My “choice” is the hospital five miles away, or the other acute hospital 20 miles away. Or I can go out of county and “choose” a hospital 40 miles away. Travelling long distances for treatment is not pleasant, especially if you use public transport that never synchronises with your appointment times. No local is always best when it comes to hospitals. I want my local hospital to be the best there is (and incidentally, it is).

    Choice makes politicians feel nice, they feel all right-wingery, free-marketery it makes them feel like they are the businessmen that they always wanted to be but failed to achieve. In public services “choice” just gets in the way. Yes we want improvements in public services, and to do that we have to benchmark what services are doing and take action when they are not improving. But to leave something as important as that to “the market” is dangerous. This government will learn that the hard way. We will see hospitals close (Lansley won’t care, that is in his plan) but we will also see GP practices go bankrupt and when that happens Lansley will quietly change what he wrote in section 5.14 of the NHS white paper, and, knowing that local Tories will lose votes if a local GP practice closes, he will stump up the cash to keep it going. And quietly, the market will have failed yet again in healthcare.

  10. james says:

    I think that it is unlikely that firms geared towards profit-maximisation are going to have the capacity to adequately deliver a public service or utility. The fact we have public services in the first place is due to market failure and/or ineffective demand.

    On productivity in the health service – I’m not so sure that is the case. Watch this short film which takes apart the comparisons which are often made to deliberately undermine the investment Labour made in improving the NHS: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-VE98QYtg0.

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