In her column on Tuesday just gone Polly Toynbee points her readers to a London School of Economics survey which suggests that, contrary to what the Tories would have us believe, Labour spent both wisely and well while in power.
Did Labour’s social policy work? The answer is a pretty resounding yes, according to the LSE’s definitive survey of the Blair-Brown years: “There is clear evidence that public spending worked, contrary to popular belief.” Nor did Labour overspend. It inherited “a large deficit and high public sector debt”, with spending “at a historic low” – 14th out of 15 in the EU. Labour spending increased considerably, but until the crash was still “unexceptional”, either by historic UK standards or international ones. Until 2007 “national debt levels were lower than when Labour took office”.
But the Tory myth has taken hold: Labour squandered vast sums on wasteful programmes that didn’t work. Benefits were “thrown at” the idle instead of changing lives. All this is refuted by a wealth of statistics from Professors John Hills and Ruth Lupton and others in their reports on health, education and inequality. Reading this monumental research – Labour’s Social Policy Record: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 1997-2010 – you can only wonder at how badly Labour has defended its record.
Toynbee suggests that Labour has not defended its record – and indeed is still reluctant to draw attention to it – because it believes that in spending in the ways it did it was pursuing an agenda that the vast majority of voters do not really care for.
A deeper lesson goes to the heart of the Blair-Brown years. They did all this good mostly by stealth, unsure that social programmes aimed at the poor would win re-election. They walked the walk, but talked the talk only to the party faithful. This government gets away with demolishing what Labour did because the social democratic idea behind it was never embedded in the national psyche.
The social democratic idea, if it ever was embedded, probably died the death not long after the election of Margaret Thatcher came to power.