Magazine article The Spectator

Lost Labour

Magazine article The Spectator

Lost Labour

Article excerpt

When disabled activists converged on the House of Commons this week to protest against welfare reform, they wanted to remind the Tories of what happened the last time a reforming government tried to tackle disability benefits. That was December 1997, when Tony Blair was talking as fervently about welfare reform as Iain Duncan Smith does now. But once he saw men in wheelchairs chaining themselves to the Downing Street railings wearing placards saying 'Blair doesn't care, ' he panicked. The reform agenda was quietly abandoned. As a result, millions lived through Britain's boom years in a state of welfare dependency. By the time Blair tried again, years later, he had lost his political authority and he made little progress.

This time, the protestors face a government with firmer resolve - one which has learned from Blair's failures. The tragedy of the Labour years is that so many good ideas were mooted but never properly implemented. The coalition has made progress in office because they have picked up where Blair's pro-market reforms left off. Michael Gove's school reforms simply accelerate Blair's academies agenda. Chris Grayling's welfare reforms, so successful in weeding out ablebodied incapacity benefits claimants, were started by James Purnell three years ago. On health, Andrew Lansley's plans to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy simply continue the trend he inherited. He should have had the humility to admit this and buckle down to work - rather than publishing a massive and unnecessary Health Bill.

Unwilling to fight for intellectual custody of the Blair reform agenda, Ed Miliband is attacking it with relish. And in so doing, he is taking his party back to where it was in the mid-1980s. Take the academies programme, which gives state schools the same freedoms as private schools, with stunning results. When Labour left power, one in 16 schools had this coveted status. Last month, we reported that it had reached one in six.

Now, it is one in five. Andy Burnham, the shadow education spokesman, describes it as a 'whirlwind', and he does not mean this positively. In a recent address to the teachers' unions, Burnham warned that 'an attack has been launched on state education in England'. The attack was started, of course, by the New Labour government. The free schools agenda is, Burnham added, 'designed to break a successful school system and turn it into a free-for-all'. One could hardly ask for a better example of the difference between the two parties. …

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