Thursday 28 February 2008

Labour's 'Southern challenge' explains why New Labour reform matters

The current issue of Progress includes some fascinating articles about the importance of Labour keeping hold of its existing seats in the South, including my constituency of NE Somerset, where the excellent Dan Norris faces a challenge, bizarrely, from Jacob Rees-Mogg. The articles are an important reminder of why New Labour was - and remains - so important. The silly gesturism of Harriet Harman praising Castro or backbenchers singing the Red Flag after the Northern Rock nationalisation suggest that too many in the party have forgotten the lessons of the eighties and early nineties. I can still remember how we felt on the day after John Major - a man clearly regarded as an indecisive lightweight by his colleagues, if Michael Portillo's excellent documentary on BBC 4 is any guide - won the 1992 election and we failed to win the Mitcham and Morden constituency which I then chaired.

Gordon Brown has shown some understanding of this, particularly since Christmas with his cabinet shake-up, but he and his ministers should not allow the notion to spread that the Tories are more radical than Labour on public services reform. Despite the impressionability of Fraser Nelson in the Spectator, the fact is that Labour has opened (not talked about opening) 83 academies already; has given parents a legal right to request feasibility work on schools that they would run themselves; has insisted on competitions for new schools open to the same providers of which Nelson and Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove clearly approve; and has delivered substantial improvements in school standards.

At the same time, the Tories have simply caved in to vested interests on the NHS - as Iain Dale concedes - when Andrew Lansley, Cameron's shadow health secretary for life, chooses the day that the NAO reveals how the BMA conned us all over GP contracts to announce his plans for another vast increase in NHS spending, presumably on terms entirely dictated by the BMA. Labour must reassert the radical credentials - that have not only won it three general elections, but have delivered real reform - if it is to retain the coalition of Southern voters so vital to a fourth victory.

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