Peter Hoskin

A false dawn?

A false dawn?
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Gordon Brown has a comment piece in today's Observer.  It rehashes the usual statements about skills, schools and the global economy ("in a globally competitive national economy, there will be almost no limits to aspirations for upward mobility").  And outlines the Government policy relevant to these areas - more academies; an expansion of the Teach First programme; raising the school leaving age to 18; and giving an apprenticeship to "every qualified young person who wants it. 

Nothing particularly surprising, then, but a couple of paragraphs at the end of the article really stand out:

"We must take the reform of public services to the next level, at all times seeking to personalise these services so they meet the distinct and unique needs of individuals.  Renewing and improving the NHS will mean being prepared to make greater use of the private sector, particularly in primary care.

Where they offer innovation and good value for money, private sector firms have a lot to offer patients and the NHS.  But no one should be in any doubt that where they don't, we will, in patients' interests, be tough: on private sector primary care and on underperforming private sector hospitals."

It's this kind of language which leads commentators such as Andrew Rawnsley to identify Brown's growing adherency to Blairism.  The words certainly sound a bit more Blairite, but I'm still extremely sceptical about it all.  For starters, I'll believe it when I see it - thusfar, the Brown regime has pulled reform backwards in almost every policy area, with NHS policy being especially wobbly. And secondly, this isn't the freewheeling, natural commitment to reform of, say, Nick Clegg.  It's reform through gritted teeth.  Look at that last sentence, again:

"...we will, in patients' interests be tough: on private sector primary care and on underperforming private sector hospitals."

No less than a rhetorical Sword of Damocles hanging over private operators from the word go.  On the whole, NHS centres have underperformed during a decade in which they received unprecedented levels of funding.  But when did we hear Brown so bluntly threaten to unleash the private sector attack dogs?

Just a suspicion: we might be about to see a grand programme of stealth centralisation, which would enable Brown to pull back reform whilst also flashing his Blairite credentials.  It's already happened in education.  On the surface, we're hearing that the academies programme will be put into overdrive, but one of the first measures of the Brown Government was to limit the independence of academies by wedding them more closely to the national curriculum.  It's a debasement of Blairite ideals, and a sign of Brown's true colours.