Magazine article Public Finance

Present Tense

Magazine article Public Finance

Present Tense

Article excerpt

The other day, a Labour MP, a former minister and assiduous constituency man, asked me rather diffidently 'We're doing well, aren't we?' There was genuine puzzlement in his question.

MPs are maniacal consumers of the media. On the front pages are Blunkett, Blair's Christmas card, Joe Pasquale, Brown-Blair and, of course, continuing death and destruction in Iraq. Some days, the news diet is unremittingly negative.

Yet from Labour's point of view the real news, five months off from the general election planned for May, is good. Very good. Away from the front pages, the government is delivering on the promises made in 2001 and MPs half-believe the public knows it.

The one who asked me the question about improvement could have answered it from his Midlands surgeries. The public's mood is contradictory. Labour hasn't won hearts and minds, people expect a lot and don't thank politicians for what they get - yet there is broad contentment in the land. At long last, MPs believe, people seem to be registering that public services are better.

Don't let's get hung up - for a moment - on whether Labour caused such positives as the continuing (all in cancer and heart disease deaths, in crime (British crime survey) or in joblessness or the increases in incomes (disproportionately up for the poorest tenth of households). Or, with a plateau or two, the rise in educational attainment in primary and secondary schools. The political point that Labour will seek to hammer home in the New Year is that things did get better.

Some improvements are unequivocally due to Labour and its targets regime. NHS capacity has expanded and waits are down. The headlines might say 'patient booking system runs late', but in March there will be screens in early adopter' GP surgeries that allow doctors and patients to choose and book appointments together - and that is an NHS revolution.

Of course, there are wrinkles. Against new evidence of improvement in English primary schools, you need to set the UK's glaring absence from the most recent comparative survey of pupil standards by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The UK wasn't even in the league table, apparently because its data had not been available in time, a peculiar excuse for such a highly targeted and measured system.

No one pretends Labour has cracked its principal second term problem - the gap between public perception of public service delivery and 'objective' outcomes. But polls suggest that the gap has started to narrow. People might still be wary and chary on the tax front, but economic optimism is high and there is no compelling evidence that perceptions of the economy are less electorally significant than previously.

Politically, you wouldn't say things have got better for Blair. Trust (lack of it) hangs unshakeably on his shoulders. Yet it is remarkable how, in the circumstances of the past year, his political prospects did not get worse. A year punctuated by inquiries of the import of Hutton and Butler could have led to Blair s fall. But if, as reported, he did rock in private in April or thereabouts and consider going, what a turnaround.

Looked at historically, the Blair government is in extraordinary shape. Clement Attlee never got to seven years as prime minister (discounting his time in Churchill's wartime coalition). After seven years, Margaret Thatcher had big beasts snarling at her: on her seventh anniversary Michael Heseltine walked out of her Cabinet on a matter of deep seriousness and, as he saw it, national identity. Robin Cook departed the Blair Cabinet on a question of principle, it's true, but his tone was more in sorrow than in anger. Unlike Heseltine, he was never an alternative prime minister.

In comparison, the harmony in the Blair Cabinet is remarkable. Either Blunkett, Reid, Clarke et al are pygmies (in which case they ought to have had more problems running their big departments) or this remains a most harmonious administration. …

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