The Spectator

It wasn’t all bad

The Labour party typically disembowels itself after an election defeat, but this time it hasn’t waited to be beaten.

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The Labour party typically disembowels itself after an election defeat, but this time it hasn’t waited to be beaten.

The Labour party typically disembowels itself after an election defeat, but this time it hasn’t waited to be beaten. The party which gathers in Brighton next week is already at war, and many of its brightest prospects have already left the field. The likes of John Hutton and Alan Milburn have despaired, and are quitting parliament altogether. The trade unions, who have long dreamed about capturing Labour, may soon buy it for scrap.

This magazine sheds few tears for the demise of a party which is now as bankrupt morally as it is financially. But it may fall to us to deliver a brief elegy, a tribute to what Labour got right. Its failures have been so spectacular and costly — from our defeat in Basra to Gordon Brown’s staggering economic incompetence — that it is easy to forget the sporadic but significant successes. Rewriting recent political history has become standard practice in this era of spin. Labour brilliantly misrepresented John Major’s seven years in power as one long Black Wednesday. But the Conservatives would be doing themselves no favours if they were to do the same. To succeed, David Cameron must first identify Labour’s achievements and then build on them.

Chief among these is Tony Blair’s introduction of a functioning internal market to the National Health Service. The pace of liberalisation has been slow, with independent providers muscled out by a system anxious to protect its own privileges. But the Blair reforms established an important principle: that the NHS should not be seen as a provider of health services, but a means of paying for them. The Tories, whose sole health policy seems to be giving independence to the NHS bureaucracy that Blair was trying to fight, should learn from this.

The city academies, semi-independent secondary schools, represent a largely successful attempt to transfer power from local authorities to parents. The dismal state of British state education (particularly that meted out to lower-income families) is a result of the failure of successive governments to liberate schools from bureaucratic control. The academies were rolled out at too slow a pace, but set a template which the Tories must follow. They should exist alongside Michael Gove’s potentially revolutionary plans for new, free independent schools.

Labour’s part-privatisation of welfare, using and incentivising various companies to move people back into work, has also done well where it has been applied. It has gone some way to reversing the unforgiveable decision to use the boom to keep five million people on benefits while importing new workers to meet the needs of an expanding economy.

We hesitate to applaud Blair for his commitment to Britain being a major player on the world stage, because he pursued this agenda by fighting five wars on a peacetime budget and stretching the goodwill of our military to and beyond breaking point. If his foreign policy had been properly reinforced with troops and equipment, it would have protected Britain’s status as a nation which seeks to shape the world, rather than be shaped by it. As a result of Labour’s refusal properly to fund the armed forces, we look and feel like a country in retreat.

The so-called independence of the Bank of England, for so long hailed as a great Labour success, is increasingly looking like a root cause of the recession. The Bank’s inflation-only mandate rendered it institutionally blind to the asset bubble which has burst so spectacularly. The government failed to control the supply of money — and, predictably, bankers gorged on the result.

None of Labour’s success stories will be acclaimed in Brighton next week. Brown obstructed public sector reform every step of the way and has done his best to halt or reverse it while in office. It is a symptom of the party’s terminal illness that it is embarrassed about what it got right and keen to do more of what it got wrong. This is why next week’s conference will be part of a slow political suicide. All the Conservatives need to do is sit back and watch.