Milestones And Millstones

Sid Cumberland

Sid Cumberland

As a teacher, the prospect of writing reports for the children in my care looms large at this time of year. Trying to sum up a child’s overall progress at a given point is a tricky task – and the same applies to assessing the progress of governments.

So what might Tony Blair’s end-of-term report look like?

Our task here should be made easier by the fact that the government’s performance can be measured against clearly stated manifesto commitments. Unfortunately, ministers have already started to blur these promises – extending timescales and moving the goal posts.

It is quite clear that New Labour have made some good progress, notably in the area of constitutional reform. But they have failed miserably in other areas – particularly in improving health, education and other public services.

Let’s look at constitutional reform first. We have already seen successful referenda for a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly. And London looks set to have its own democratic and accountable authority again, having been largely voiceless since Mrs Thatcher disbanded the GLC. A Greater London Authority I will certainly welcome – but I would sound a note of caution about elected mayors. They can only have any real clout if power is taken from other elected bodies. And I would worry about taking power away from an elected London assembly and giving it to the Mayor of London – whether it turns out to be Ken Livingstone, Richard Branson or Lord Archer.

Meanwhile, Lord Jenkins’ commission on voting reform is busy looking at how our archaic electoral system might be brought up to date. Not surprisingly, the Conservatives think that any change here would be sacrilegious. Personally, I believe that one of the strengths of our constitution is its flexibility. If we had not changed our constitution in the last 200 years, our current government would have been elected by a handful of protestant Tory landowners. I rather suspect that they would not have voted for Tony Blair.

The need for change in our voting systems was underlined in Rayleigh in 1996, when elections for the new Town Council gave the Liberal Democrats 95% of the seats with only 75% of the votes. If a quarter of the electors choose Conservative or Socialist candidates, shouldn’t they get a quarter of the seats?

The same argument applies at Westminster. Labour have 63% of the seats, with 44% of the votes. I only hope that Lord Jenkins’ report is not influenced too much by Jack Straw, who has a firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick on this issue (as on many others).

So much for the milestones. Now for the millstones.

“We will rebuild the NHS, reducing spending on administration and increasing spending on patient care.” One of Labour’s unfulfilled election pledges, now a millstone hanging round Frank Dobson’s neck. Not only have waiting lists not gone down, they have actually gone up – by over 100,000. No wonder Mr Dobson admitted on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme that he was embarrassed. [Incidentally, my computer spellchecker wants to change ‘Dobson’ to ‘Dubiousness’!]

His embarrassment could have been avoided if Labour had not painted themselves into a corner by committing themselves to the Tories’ spending plans.

Our NHS is not the only public service to be suffer. Another much-vaunted Labour promise was that class sizes would come down. What has happened? They have gone up. Government figures show that the percentage of classes with over 30 pupils is still rising. 26% in 1996, 28% in 1997 … any bets on 30% by the year 2000?

People voted for a change in May 1997. They find themselves with a government which says it cannot improve our public services, thanks to plans devised by the previous administration. This ridiculous and unnecessary promise condemns us all to years of under-investment in public services. 18 wasted years – and New Labour have promised to make it 20.

In May 1997, the Liberal Democrats were the only party prepared to be honest about public spending. We promised smaller class sizes, shorter hospital waiting lists, more police officers on the beat – and we explained how they would be paid for. We did so because we know that such investment is the only way to raise standards in education, to improve our health, to maintain public safety.

At Westminster, Liberal Democrats will continue our strategy of constructive opposition – supporting the government when they are doing the right thing, attacking them mercilessly when they are not.

We will give them good marks when they succeed, and we’ll deduct house points when they fail. Our verdict on their first year: ‘A promising start. Must do better’.