July 13, 2010


Can the Coalition triumph on the battlefield where Tony Blair was beaten?: The Government must learn from New Labour's failed attempts to reform the public sector (Fraser Nelson, 12 Jul 2010, Daily Telegraph)

Ten years ago, Mr Blair and Alan Milburn also believed they could direct reform from Whitehall. But as time went on, they found that they were outmanoeuvred at every level. GPs would simply refuse to inform patients that they had the right to attend a private clinic at the NHS's expense. The new GPs' contract was a disaster for ministers – and the latest in a long series of triumphs for the British Medical Association. Talk of having private clinics conducting 10 per cent of NHS operations came to nothing. They fought the system – and the system won.

Rather than pick up this unwon cause, Mr Lansley says he will not judge success by greater numbers of independent providers in the system. The NHS, he says, is full of people crying out for change. There are some. Sue Page, who runs the Primary Care Trust in Cumbria has been trying to develop GP commissioning for years – thereby putting herself out of a job. She will welcome yesterday's announcement. But few of her counterparts are so public-spirited, and will more likely use every tool at their resource to thwart Mr Lansley in ways that he can hardly begin to imagine. They beat the Blair government, and are preparing for a rematch.

Michael Gove is also facing a rerun of a Blair-era battle. His "free schools" agenda has caught the public imagination – but its enemies have been here before. Such was their success last time that almost everyone has forgotten Mr Blair's attempt. "All state schools to go independent" was the Daily Telegraph's front-page headline following the publication of the Education White Paper in 2005. The then prime minister said this would happen within five years: the calamitous comprehensive education experiment would be drawn to an end, and he would fight off any opposition from the teachers' unions.

The unions won. They mounted an effective under-the-radar campaign, town hall power-brokers called in favours from MPs, and the Bill was perforated with bullet holes by the time it returned to the House of Commons. Had Blair been able to deliver his policy, every pupil in England would today attend an independent school. Mr Gove would not have a schools policy. Just as in the NHS, the empire fought back – and won.

Politicians seldom admit defeat. But here is the extraordinary opportunity of the Blair biography, due out in September. "He is utterly without ego," I am told by one of his friends who has read the book, "and will be brutally honest." If so, he could admit how, in his first term, he was naïve enough to believe (as many Tories do now) that the Civil Service was in some way a Rolls-Royce that just needed to be driven correctly. And how he came to learn that bureaucracies always give the best service to the sharpest elbows – and that they must be dismantled, rather than fine tuned. His memoir can say how he came to realise that the market is the surest guarantor of social justice.

When I worked on the NJ gubernatorial in 1985, the candidate used to tell a story about his first day as the first ever Essex County Executive. He arrived at the County building in Newark and got in the elevator to go the one story up to his office. There was an elevator "operator" sitting on a stool who pushed the button for him. Appalled by the obvious inefficiency he asked what sort of employee status the guy had:

I'm a B employee.

A B employee?

I be here before you got here. I'll be here while you're here. And I'll be here after you're gone.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 13, 2010 11:42 AM
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