Did we get Blair and Brown in the wrong order?

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

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8 Responses to “Did we get Blair and Brown in the wrong order?”

  1. swatantra says:

    No, I think Blair was the better guy to win us the election and take us into Govt. Its a pity that Gordon never fully accepted it and always thought that he was better. Hence the racour and frustration all those years. And when Gordon’s chance eventually came, he fluffed it. It was a repeat of the Eden/Churchill scenario, desparately wanting office but not having the full capacity to deliver.
    But Blair’s mistake was not to abide by the Granita Agreement and go prior to 2005 as he should have done,and that cost the Party dearly. Gordon would have won an election in his own right and boosted his standing.
    The other thing is that you need a reformer and visionary at the helm, and Brown unfortunately lacked both and would not accept greater integration into Europe as a way of improving Britains economy and influence.

  2. Nick says:

    SO what’s missing?

    Nothing about the mess left. Nothing about the deficit. Nothing about the debts.

    It’s all about the mess and the fact that the UK government has been bankrupted.

    What about what we know now about Gordon?

    He’s prepared to bully people. He’s lied. He has run up massive debts. He bailed out the banks by over paying for their shares.

    Why not ask why Gordon should never have been put in charge of anything?

  3. Anon E Mouse says:

    It’s not the reform anyone complains about it’s the means by which they carried them out.

    PFI was a monumental scam started by the Tory government and given rocket boosters by Labour.

    Blair, the most successful leader in the Labour’s history was a winner.

    Brown was so hopeless as chancellor and never elected even by the Labour Party as leader that he needs to be written out of history.

    The sooner Labour start admitting what we all know to be true the sooner they may deserve consideration as potential government in this country.

    That day seems a long long way away…

  4. swatantra says:

    There’s no point in being a winner unless you take the opportunity to make radical changes; to some effect Blair did this in his first term but less so in his 2nd and even less in his 3rd. For example Wilson was a winner in 1966 but failed to do anything radical; thats why he lost in 1970 when Heath came in and took us into Europe abolished resale price maintainance decimalised our currency made us into wine drinkers and homeowners. But inspite of all that was brought down by the miners. Wilson failed to invade S Rhodesia and allowed that conflict to draw on and failed to bring in In Place of Strife, which would have brought th Unions into the C21, which allowed Thatcher to introduce her draconian powers
    Sometimes you shoud have the courage to face up to difficult decisions for fear of something worse.
    Brown in fact was a successful Chancellor in the boom times.

  5. Anon E Mouse says:

    swatantra – But without winning power then there is nothing that you can do and without a decent leader that isn’t going to happen.

    Does anyone seriously see Ed Miliband as a Prime Minister?

    The problem here is the coalition continue to play the Labour game of governance and the people do not want it.

    In poll after poll the public, including a majority of Labour supporters, want cut to benefits for example yet the government is too afraid to just get on with it.

    The government needs to grow some balls and make the cuts instead of continuing to spend at a greater rate than the last lot.

    As for Brown his Boom and Bust nonsense rules him out of ever being taken seriously on the economic front….

  6. john P Reid says:

    I agree that Blair didn’t achieve as much in his 2nd term due to 911, it was a shame as he was going to radically reform welfare ,but the terror attack changed everything, and the thrid terms and Possible of reform under Charles Clarke of the police, was cancelled when blair was ousted,

  7. BenM says:


    “Does anyone seriously see Ed Miliband as a Prime Minister?”

    I didn’t see the current useless chubby cheeked Prime Minister as one before he took office in May 2010.

    This is hardly an authoritative argument.

  8. Anon E Mouse says:

    BenM – As usual the left picks a single line from a post and then generalises.

    David Cameron has led every single poll on being Prime Ministerial and with personal ratings since Gordon Brown hijacked the Labour Party and led them to their second worst defeat in their history. The Tories are also more trusted on the economy (which is hardly surprising).

    You also do the typical left smearing personalisation regarding Cameron’s “chubby cheeked” appearance.

    That is hardly an authoritative remark and the reason I don’t comment on Miliband looking like a sixth form politics student who’s related to Wallace without Grommet in tow is because it just isn’t relevant.

    Anyway I remember you telling everyone what a great PM Gordon Brown was so I’m not sure how seriously I should take your post BenM….

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