The balance sheet on Labour's 13 years: so much good, such an opportunity lost - Toynbee and Walker reviewed

As Polly Toynbee and David Walker round off their running audit of Labour’s record, Pat Thane considers the many ‘good things’ Labour governments achieved and the weaknesses that undermined them
Pat Thane
15 November 2010

As Polly Toynbee and David Walker round off their running audit of Labour’s record, Pat Thane considers the many ‘good things’ Labour governments achieved and the weaknesses that undermined them

Polly Toynbee and David Walker, The Verdict. Did Labour Change Britain? , Granta £18.99 hardback.


It seems strangely long ago, when all we had to worry about were the shortcomings of an often well-meaning Labour government. This comprehensive survey of Labour’s performance from 1997 -2010 only reinforces puzzlement about why they couldn’t build more successfully on the good things and stay in office.

First, the good news

Let me begin with the good things - for a striking feature of the book is how many good things there were and how much Labour improved the degraded social infrastructure left behind by 18 years of Conservatism. The first term was the most productive: the minimum wage (though it was too low and subsidised the profits of low-paying businessmen), credits boosted the incomes of pensioners (though one in five of eligible people didn’t take it up) and low-wage families (though tax credits were an administrative nightmare), devolution, a major boost to university research funding in arts and humanities, funding for the arts and restoration of free entry to museums and galleries, which were crammed with visitors thereafter.

Over the longer run, teaching became a popular career, attracting high quality graduates, as pay and conditions improved. The number of apprenticeships increased from 75,000 in 1997 to 225,000 in 2007-08. Educational Maintenance Allowances (EMAs) enabled more young people from poor families to stay on at school or college. 18-19 year olds going to university from the poorest homes rose from one in eight in the mid 1990s to one in five in 2010, though they were less likely than the privately-educated to go to ‘top’ universities. Spending on early years’ education increased, making the UK one of the world’s biggest spenders. More children had better nursery education. Sure Start was a success, especially in poorer areas. The link between social class and GCSE results weakened slightly.

Labour did not succeed in reversing the growing income inequality of the Tory years, but they slowed it by significant redistribution of income to the less well-off  - mainly from middle income earners - while at the same time it rose in all developed countries, except possibly France. 600,000 fewer children were in poverty by 2010, more than promised by Blair’s sudden and unconsidered pledge in 2000 to cut the number by half. But it was the sharpest drop in the EU. The living standards of most poor families rose, but others’ rose faster and the top 1 per cent got richer.

Much more was spent on the NHS and much was needed. On most indicators it improved by 2010 and polls showed increased public satisfaction, though the Daily Mail didn’t notice. Fewer people used private health services, despite rising incomes and the fashion for cosmetic surgery. Hospitals were cleaned up and became less infection-ridden. Waiting times fell. By 2009 the NHS was doing well in international comparisons, as it had in pre-Thatcher days, and was praised even by the IMF, not a known fan of socialised medicine. WHO declared English mental health services the best in Europe. The death rate fell by 17 per cent, particularly fast for circulatory diseases. The infant death rate halved. Life expectancy continued to rise, though social class differences remained. Smoking declined. Hospitals, health centres and other NHS buildings improved and became more welcoming.

Unemployment fell to 2007 and the number of jobs rose, many of them in the public sector. These did not crowd out the private sector but, as one academic put it, were ‘filling in for the incompetence of the private sector’. Security of employment was greatly improved, including for part-time workers. Lone mothers were advised and helped into work and their access to childcare improved; 57% were working in 2009 compared with 45% in 1997. Maternity leave improved. The New Deals for Jobs for young, older and disabled people were imaginative and helped people into work, as did the Future Jobs Fund. Jobcentres became welcoming and helpful as they had never been. But manufacturing declined from 20 per cent to 12 per cent of the economy from 1997 to 2007.

Under Labour the chances of being a victim of violence just about halved, for everyone including children, after the crime wave of the 1980s and early ’90s. Quite likely, crime, including violent crime, had never been lower. Again, the mass media failed to notice. This was an international phenomenon, due partly to demographic change: there were fewer young men, the most likely criminals, and in UK more of them were in work and education. And home and car security improved. Civil partnership for gay couples was introduced. Toynbee and Walker don’t say so, but there were serious attempts to improve the access of Travellers and Gypsies, the most deprived of minority groups, to education, health and other services and to give them more secure rights to settle, despite tabloid hostility. Labour set up the first full-fledged International Development department in Whitehall. The UK became the most pro-poor and least protectionist OECD donor.

Labour inherited a large public sector deficit from the Conservatives, true to form. On three of the four occasions since 1945 when the state ran a budget surplus, Labour was in office. In important ways Labour did ‘spring-clean the dilapidated state’ it inherited.

Toynbee and Walker support their story with case-studies such as the FE College opened in depressed Middlesbrough, expanded in 2008 and producing excellent results, with half its under-19 students getting EMAs, most for the full amount. At Brighton Jobcentre Plus staff were getting young people into work, sometimes after years, helped by Labour’s Future Jobs Fund. Both EMAs and the Future Jobs Fund are being ended by a new government allegedly committed to enabling people to work.

The bad news

Then there’s the bad news. Iraq of course and Blair’s grotesque subservience to Bush, but we don’t need reminding of that. Labour had no obvious vision on foreign policy or very evidently on anything else. Blair started out positive on the EU, but his attention soon strayed. Blair, Brown and many of their ministerial acolytes grovelled to business and finance as Blair did to Bush, appearing all too often to accept that the private sector was superior to the public, not least in Brown’s encouragement of expensive PFI schemes for public sector building and his insistence on the disastrous ‘Public Private Partnership’ for renovating the London Underground , while donating £16b to build Crossrail so that business people could glide easily from Canary Wharf to Heathrow.

Labour didn’t dare challenge the bluff of overpaid businessmen who threatened to move abroad if required to pay a reasonable level of tax. Peter Mandelson declared himself ‘intensely relaxed’ about the grotesquely overpaid ‘if they paid their taxes’. Brown and Blair seemed to have no such reservation. Brown did next to nothing to stop tax evasion, followed his many predecessors in ignoring the remnants of the British Empire that had created affluent futures as tax havens, and preferred trying to remove the 10 per cent rate on low earners to taxing the rich more. The relatively few ‘welfare cheats’ were hounded and tax avoidance overlooked, though it was ever thus. Alastair Darling found the courage to raise taxes on higher earners in Labour’s last month in office, but needed to reassure them that it was ‘not ideological, you understand’. Labour left the UK safe for rich public school men (and the occasional woman) to take over.

The government refused to stand up to business on climate change - or to do much to persuade the public - and achieved little. It was unwilling to take on the food industry to control the growing scourge of obesity. Polls reported that the public just wanted good, reliable public services. But Blair’s conviction that people wanted ‘choice’ in public services as in the supermarket made NHS policy, particularly, needlessly complex, confused, less cost-effective than it could have been and demoralising to staff, not least by bringing us Foundation Hospitals.

The refusal to try to persuade the mass of voters that higher taxes in return for good public services was a good bargain - one that polls suggested most would buy – undermined many of Labour’s best efforts, including in the NHS, where continuing weaknesses, such as dentistry and dementia services, could have been remedied with more expenditure. It also made it impossible for them to have a housing policy which controlled prices and provided for those in need - one of their biggest failings; to build an adequate policy for social care of the growing numbers of older and disabled people; and, above all, to develop a strategy seriously to reduce income inequality.

Blair banned the word ‘poverty’ in the 1997 election campaign, preferring to say ‘social exclusion’ and ‘work is the best welfare’ (if you can get it and it’s decently paid). He wouldn’t talk about ‘class’ (Old Labour speak) and thought redistribution unnecessary, though surveys suggested that a positive case for redistribution through higher taxation of the wealthiest would have had wide support. Labour set up investigations into almost every aspect of deprivation, including the Social Exclusion Taskforce placed close to Blair in Whitehall. They produced good, clear reports. But, under Blair, ‘No. 10 had a limited attention span’ and the findings did not feed into consistent policy. Labour’s attention to evidence and to public opinion was sporadic and selective, far less attentive than to the right-wing press. Perhaps not surprising, then, that, in return, so few bothered to vote.

Labour refused to face up to and openly discuss real problems associated with immigration, for example pressure on services, particularly housing, in localities experiencing a sudden influx. Instead they allowed ‘asylum seekers’ to be castigated and responded by dispersing them to areas which were not helped to prepare, feeding rather than seeking to calm hostility. Similarly, far more effort and cash went into imprisoning more people, issuing useless ASBOs and multiplying CCTV cameras than in calming exaggerated media driven panics about crime and devising helpful policies for drug addicts. They failed to challenge Cameron’s absurd assertion that Britain was ‘broken’, though it was much less so in early 2010 than in 1997.

The inexplicable phenomenon was Labour’s busyness, the endless desire for intervention and change, the sudden un-thought out promises such as those to halve child poverty and increase student numbers to 50 per cent of 18 year olds, all too often responses to tabloid hysteria. Labour constantly raised unreasonable expectations while failing to promote their own real achievements, to set realistic goals and to get the credit they deserved. Rather they appeared to support perennial tabloid assertions that the public sector was failing, that all taxation was a ‘burden’ rather than a charge for good services, that the NHS and education were a mess, that crime was rising.

Restless change also afflicted the structure of government. Departments and ministers repeatedly changed their names and personnel, so that neither ministers nor civil servants had the experience or the time for considered policy-making. Pensions and social security had nine ministers in 13 years. And not much sign that the numerous, often equally inexperienced, special advisors helped .

Labour certainly didn’t listen to the comment of one of the early ones, Geoff Mulgan, who said that ‘governments underestimate what they can do in the long run and overestimate what they can do in the short run.’. ‘Labour ministers contracted a bad case of policy diarrhoea’, as Toynbee and Walker put it, ‘Brown and Blair treated Whitehall as a playground’.

They really seemed to believe that the mass of voters thought like the Daily Mail and that progressive polices could only be pursued by stealth. Why? Like Toynbee and Walker, we can only ‘remain perplexed at why a clever and well-intentioned group of men and women achieved so much less than they might have done’. Ed Miliband can learn a lot from this book. He will need it, given the mess the current government are shaping up to leave behind - soon, I hope.

Pat Thane is Professor of Contemporary History, King’s College, London. Among her latest books are ‘Unequal Britain: Inequalities in Britain since 1945’ and  ‘The Long History of Old Age’

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