Monday 14 September 2009

Mandelson sets a reformist tone for pre-election debate

A very good speech from Peter Mandelson in the Progress event at the LSE today. He rightly emphasised Labour's reform record and credentials, and cleverly set up serious dividing lines with the Conservatives over minimum standards.

There was much talk of academies and foundation trusts, and a sensible exposition of the differences between the two parties on the role of the state, not least on issues like minimum waiting times for treatment. By providing such context, he has made it much easier to explain the different approaches between the parties to savings and cuts that will be needed in the future.

We start from a position of credibility given that the big success story of British social democracy in the last twelve years has been the rescue, revival, and rehabilitation of public services as a vital part of our national life. Britain's welfare state and public services survived the Thatcher/Major era – but only just.

Since 1997 Labour has, in effect, saved the NHS, transformed educational standards and dramatically widened access to educational opportunity. These achievements are now taken for granted, almost discounted by those to the right and left of us. It has led to public service innovation, with the introduction and dramatic expansion of Sure Start and Children's Centres, for example, and modernised the delivery of existing services with for example, the establishment of NHS Trusts and academies.

And all this has required a huge injection of additional cash. The New Labour mantra of "invest and reform" summed up a policy which has seen public spending on the NHS double in real terms since we took office. Per pupil funding in schools has also doubled. At the same time public service delivery has been opened up to a diversity of providers with a new range of choice for patients, parents and service users.

So, while the headlines may be about belt-tightening, the subtext is a much more important repositioning of the Labour argument towards a reform agenda, and away from the rather unproductive early efforts to appease its leftwing critics.
Labour, then, have always been committed "state reformers" and should feel no nervousness about the label. Rather, today's challenges require us to accelerate the pace of reform......The way forward is not to get rid of individual service entitlements as the Tories propose. It is to set a framework that allies these entitlements that the public rightly expects to the creation of a greater space for our public servants in how they deliver the services for which they are responsible.

To be fair, Ed Balls, who has been criticised for his attitude to reform, effectively pre-empted this repositioning with his academies blitz last week, as Mandelson reminds us. Alastair Darling has already shifted the spending argument and Andy Burnham at health is a strong reformer by instinct.

Once the argument is coherently and consistently framed again in these terms, Labour is in a stronger position to deal with the details of Michael Gove's school proposals and the vacuousness of BMA spokesman Andrew Lansley's health policy. This speech could prove to be a very important turning-point in the pre-election debate.

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