by Kevin Meagher
When it came to public services there were always two New Labours: Tony’s and Gordon’s.
In Tony’s, public services needed “reform”. This meant structural change, private sector involvement and tough performance management. Convincing his reluctant party this was necessary gave him those famous “scars on his back”.
In Gordon’s version, the paramount consideration was pumping in extra “resources”. “Prudence with a purpose” would deliver catch-up investment. The water of public finance would be liberally sprinkled over parched schools and hospitals. More would lead to better. A lot more would lead to a lot better.
Throughout their decade-long rule, these discrete emphases of the Romulus and Remus of New Labour became intertwined; two narratives wrapped around each other. Twin approaches to governing.
But what would have happened if they had developed sequentially rather than simultaneously? What if Labour had explored the limits of investment first before embarking on reform? Would we have ended up with a better sense of how to govern and an understanding of the limitations of public spending?
Conversely, we might also have recognised that reform cannot be a perpetual condition – and should be a reluctant expedient – followed by a decent period of consolidation – rather than a panacea, or even worse: a test of a minister’s modernising credentials.
Instead, reform and resources got bundled up together. We were spending money on things we were also changing at the same time. We kept pressing the buttons on the dashboard harder and faster in order to get a response. As we thudded away, we over-governed and under-evaluated.
New and sometimes contradictory policy directions spawned an army of quangos as objectives became confused. Skills policy was a classic example. Scores of players across public, private and not-for-profit sectors had a role in the planning and delivery. Duplication and overlap were everywhere.
A sector-led approach? Sure, but what about the geographical remit of regional development agencies? And how do we get businesses involved? Ah, set-up business-led sector skills councils. But what about public sector skills? Set up some for them too. The result? 25 separate sector skills councils. And a regulatory body. And the RDAs still had their own skills strategies at the end of it.
This frenetic approach to governing led to announcements becoming detached from the execution of policy. The horizons for measuring what was working narrowed too. 40 odd pieces of criminal justice legislation still left the home office, in John Reid’s phrase, “unfit for purpose” a decade after Labour took over running it. No sooner was policy bedding down than the whole thing was ripped up again and replaced with something different.
Government hyper-activism trumped a slower, more methodical approach which might have seen us govern better, innovate more and deliver real value for money in the process.
We would have been better to align investment and reform with actual improvements rather than frame our record in terms of how much extra we spent on nurses, teachers and police. People want outputs, not inputs. Talk of “billions” baffles. They simply want to know how much better their local school or hospital is getting.
If we evaluate New Labour using Bevan’s “language of priorities” maxim, then the obvious conclusion is that we got Tony and Gordon the wrong way round. Perhaps five years of Prime Minister Brown’s extra resources to cash-starved public services followed by five years of Prime Minister Blair’s reforming zeal would have delivered a better equilibrium.
Being clearer, earlier, about the limitations of public spending might also have helped Labour’s understanding of how a social democratic party governs in the 21st century. Yes, money matters. But so does effective management. And a willingness to take on entrenched interests. And to think beyond the 24-hour news cycle.
This way we might have avoided Labour becoming wedded to the idea that the size of the state is the primary marker of its effectiveness. Perhaps this way the clothes of reform would not be worn quite so gleefully by grateful Conservative ministers today.
Of course the argument can be flipped around. It is disingenuous in the extreme to reform your way to public service excellence without putting up the cash first. A leaky classroom roof or dilapidated hospital ward is not going to be “reformed” into improvement – it needs money spending on it.
The upshot for Labour right now is that spending remains an article of faith while reform has few enthusiasts and is unhelpfully parked as a Blairite priority. Yes, resources matter, but how they’re spent matters just as much. What we badly need, however, is a better fusion of both approaches. Only then will we have a coherent and credible offer on public services next time around.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut