|t the time of writing it was unknown
how many Labour MPs would rebel against the Education
Bill, But whatever the outcome, the long running
crisis has left many wondering why the Labour Government
has got itself into similar hot water so many times.
Tuition fees, Foundation Hospitals, Primary Care
Trust reorganisation have all followed similar
The simplistic answer is, of course, that the
Government is pursuing policies that many in the
PLP and the wider Labour Party do not like. There
is some truth in that. But unless you subscribe
to the view that Labour Ministers are all closet
Tories and that new Labour was a Tory project it’s
not very helpful in understanding why these things
Several bad habits have come together in each
of the recent public service reform rows. With
a leadership change imminent, we must make sure
they are not carried forward into the new regime.
It’s striking how much all our recent policy
rows stem from an explicitly ideological approach
to policy-making. This marked a sharp change from
New Labour’s origins. Then the mantra was ‘what
matters is what works’. Early on this was
much more than a way of challenging the traditional
socialist ideology of ‘old Labour’ with
its uncritical support for producer interests and
its in principle rejection of all market mechanisms.
It also was the basis for rejecting Thatcherite
approaches to taxation, public spending and family
In the early years, a pragmatic approach was taken
to public sector reform. We had clear values – we
wanted public services that worked both for the
poor and disadvantaged and for middle Britain,
and we wanted to close the gap between the two.
But the tools we used were largely based on evidence
of what worked in practice. But New Labour’s
impatience for change and its desire to produce
headline-grabbing initiatives often distorted the
best efforts at change. Too much was expected before
the money really began to arrive. Targets were
over-used and badly designed. Centralised management
encouraged gaming and suppressed local initiative.
The pressure for rapid change meant that good developments
like Primary Care Trusts were pushed too far too
fast and then abandoned as failures before they
had a chance to succeed.
Instead of taking a measured approach to success
and failure, and building on the former, impatience
took hold. The search began for new approaches.
And this is where the insidious simplicities of
the new internal markets began to make a comeback.
There is no doubt that choice and contestability
have legitimate roles to play in the management
of public services, but only as part of a package
of measures that must include planning, strategic
management, outcome measures, independent inspection,
intervention and accountability. Real public services
are complex and the desire to find simple formulae
for their reform is doomed to failure.
But the Government has adopted a simplistic and
ideological formula. All public services have to
be based on a diversity of independent providers
who compete for business in a market governed by
consumer choice. All across Whitehall, any policy
option has now to be dressed up as ‘choice’ ‘diversity’ and ‘contestability’.
These are the hallmarks of the ‘new model
We can see this formula behind al the recent major
policy rows, and its ideological nature goes some
way to explain Labour’s internal opposition.
But it’s not the whole reason. Plenty of
MPs are willing to look at policy change on its
merits, whether or not they have suspicions about
its origins. And this is the second point where
things go wrong.
However strongly the Government believes in ‘choice,
diversity and contestability’ there is little
unambiguous evidence in its favour, and plenty
of evidence that points to caution. The evidence
does not suggest, for example, that choice all
leads to inequities but it certainly suggests that
it usually does. There are services where a choice
of independent autonomous providers may make sense,
but the evidence suggests that health, or education,
works best when this is cooperation between different
parts of the system. The link between your nurse,
GP, consultant and therapists is more important
than competition between different providers.
It is common to hear the Government claim that
evidence supports its reforms. But it is much rarer
to have the evidence published. The recent Education
White Paper claimed international evidence for
choice based school systems, but none of this evidence
was included or referenced in the White Paper.
The tuition fees idea did not appear to be based
on any modelling of how it would effect the finances
of different higher education institutions. The
instruction to stop Primary Care Trusts providing
services was not based on any analysis of the strengths
and weaknesses of primary care delivery. A recent
pamphlet by the Prime Minister’s health advisor
on markets and primary care was remarkable for
omitting any discussion of the clinical needs of
When new policies are produced most Labour MPs
assess them on their practical effects. (Most of
us are still working in the era of ‘what
matters is what works’ I’m afraid).
As it becomes clear that there is no evidence to
support the changes, the concerns grow. When it
then transpires that even the most basic details
have not been thought through (like what will happen
to the staff that used to work from the PCTs) the
Until now at least, the process has had a messy
but predictable end. The original policies are
transformed so that the damage is minimised. Tuition
fees were capped preventing a serious internal
market in HE; the PCT policy was sent into reverse
for a few months at least. But all this has a very
damaging effect on Labour. Voters do not like divided
parties, and the process is inevitably establishing
an image that will be hard to throw off.
This could be avoided. Not so long ago, Governments
published radical policy ideas in discussion documents
(green papers). The debate that followed allowed
controversial proposals to be thrashed out; for
the practical to be sorted from the impractical.
Government policy itself was not defined until
later (in a white paper).
These days, daft ideas can go from the back of
the envelope straight into white papers. Change
is then doubly difficult, because it cannot be
made with the Prime Minister or other Ministers
being seen to climb down.
There is one final element that undermines sound
policy formation. Superficially it makes sense
for any to seek policies that will be electorally
popular. But here again the process seems to be
going awry. There is no doubt that Labour’s
continued survival in office depends on convincing
middle income, middle class voters that they are
getting value for money from public services; there
is good evidence to say that choice and personalised
service matter greatly to these voters. It is the
equation of these aspirations with choice based,
competitive systems that is not justified. There
are plenty of ways of giving people more choice
and control without relying on internal market
mechanisms, but these don’t seem to get equal
If policy making continues like this, Labour will
suffer a further series of damaging rows and be
damaged with the voters. There is also real danger
in choosing policies because they appeal solely
to the centre ground of Labour's coalition. Sound
policies must work for all Labour's voters, not
just for middle England. Such policies do exist,
but are too often put to one side. This brief overview
of recent mistakes suggests four ways we need to
change our approach in future.
Firstly, go back to pragmatic policy making which
has a clear set of outcomes and an undogmatic approach
to selecting the best policy tools. (I suspect
this won’t be too popular with Chartist readers,
but allowing ideology to overrule the facts is
always likely to lead to the wrong policies. The
powerful role for ideology is in setting the outcomes – for
the many not the few, with a bias towards the poor – not
the mechanics. Secondly, back this up by publishing
the evidence and analysis that lies behind the
policy. Thirdly, be prepared to have our ideas
discussed and scrutinised before settling on Government
Finally, of course keep your eye on electoral
support. But take a balanced view of the different
ways of meeting the voters’ aspirations.
John Denham is MP for Southampton Itchen. He resigned
as a Home Office Minister over the Iraq war.