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Andrew Haldenby: Brown must not be "the heir to Blair"

Andrew_haldenby Andrew Haldenby, Director of Reform, asks if Brown really will change sufficiently in his approach to public services.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown defined “change” as the mission of his premiership.  To quote the key paragraph:

“I have heard the need for change: change in our NHS; change in our schools; change with affordable housing; change to build trust in government; change to protect and extend the British way of life.”

He is right to do so.  Reform’s latest report – "Key policy lessons of the “Blair years” for future governments", released today – concludes that future governments should make a decisive break from the policies of the past decade if the UK is to overcome its deep-set problems of economic and social division.

Tony Blair’s valedictory speeches argued that his policies had delivered a Britain that is better across the board, and a public sector which is focused upon choice, competition, decentralisation and markets.  Some Conservatives have agreed with him, seeking to take his side against Gordon Brown.

A truer picture would recognise that the Government’s record in the economy and public services is mixed at best, with aggregate performance very poor in some areas.  For example, less than half of children achieve five GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and maths.  Where improvements have occurred – from lowering mortality rates to lowering crime rates to economic growth – the key cause has been private initiative rather than central action.

On policy, while some Ministers have accepted the drawbacks of central direction and higher spending, they remain the cornerstones of government policy.  Tony Blair actually enhanced the centralisation of decision-making after 2001.  Genuine reform, which truly empowers individuals and communities and minimises the role of government, has remained the subject of speeches and discussion rather than actual policy.

As a result, no politician should seek to be the “heir to Blair”.  The key lessons of the last decade are:

  • Go for structural reform.  There is no substitute for real reform which makes services accountable to their users, often by turning government from a provider into a deliverer.  City academies and Independent Sector Treatment Centres may increase diversity but they do not amount to structural change.
  • Make your reform plan before your election.  Ministers have made the clearest rhetorical commitment to reform in this Parliament, when their political capital is at its lowest.
  • Resist the temptation to centralise.  Faced with a lack of progress, the temptation for Ministers is to try to take a personal grip.  This is precisely what happened to Tony Blair in 2001.  He ramped up the apparatus of central direction, through institutions such as the Delivery Unit, and devoted personal time to meetings (public and private) with public sector workers.  But central direction removes the accountability of frontline managers.  And Ministers – even Prime Ministers – are subject to conflicting pressures; when another priority arrives, the momentum towards improvement is lost.
  • Understand the costs of spending.  Higher spending increases taxes, which stifles the private initiative that has been at the heart of so much that is good about Britain in the last ten years.  It also blocks public service reform by absorbing resources that could be better spent on new provision.
  • Will Gordon Brown learn these lessons – and achieve real “change”? Positively, he has spoken of a “new politics” which puts “more power in the hands of people”.  But his speech on education last week focused on a dramatic spending increase: an increase in annual education spending of 4.5 per cent of GDP, at a cost of around £51 billion to the taxpayer.  This would learn nothing from the experience of the last decade.

Will David Cameron learn these lessons?  Reform’s analysis of current Conservative policy will follow this summer.


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