If the Blair decade has any defence, it is in the twin claims to running a prosperous economy and to have introduced a range of concrete policies that improved everyday life. Assessment of Blair/Brown’s economic record on its own terms is for more qualified souls than I, and the deformation of British culture and texture of everyday life at the hands of the market that I’ve observed over the past decade is for another discussion.
But what of the social policy?
In The Guardian, Polly Toynbee notes the increase in basic benefit payments, low-income tax credits, the 3500 early childhood development Sure Start centres, functional literacy levels of 10-12-year-olds up from 60% to 80%, building programs for hospitals and schools, the reduction in hospital waiting lists. A mandated minimum wage was also introduced, but it was so low that most recorded wages were at the level already, and cash wages in London and other vast urban black labour markets obviously weren’t affected.
Yet, in health, some of this is rubber-budgeting. The regional trusts that run the NHS had their budgeting systems changed so that any debts incurred over a year resulted in both a punitive reduction of their grant and a requirement to make good the shortfall in the next financial year. Now, 17 of them have virtually collapsed. Those that haven’t, have survived by simply rationing care, leading to huge regional variation in health and survival rates.
One of the great cost drains has been an attempt to introduce a new computer system for the NHS which everyone said wouldn’t work and, hey, it hasn’t, billions of dollars later. A similar drain can be seen in education with the obsession with privatised “city academies” — £50 million on consultants alone, a drive to have 400 schools run by anyone who wants to stick their hand up and can stump up the matching cash, and huge cost blowouts on construction to up to £40 million per school.
Alan Milburn, the education secretary, claimed that the number of failing schools had been reduced from 650 to a few dozen over the last 10 years. Yet Ofsted, the school standards authority claimed that 38% of schools were still below minimum standard by 2006, after which it was banned from releasing its reports in pre-election periods.
In criminal justice, the record is barely inspiring. Though 80,000 are in prison — doubled from 1997 — and the facilities are so crowded that many prisoners are on 23-hour lockdown, violent crime has doubled. Tough on crime/tough on the causes of crime became, erm, tough on crime/tough on crime.
So it hasn’t been nothing — but even by the low standards of social market programs, it has hardly been a comprehensive reconstruction of life and infrastructure. And 10 years on, I still can’t turn up at a GP’s office if I’m ill (if I’m not registered there), a nurse in London earns £18,000 pa and a bedsit costs £130,000, and highly rated state schools are now giving out places in their catchment areas by use of lotteries … and on it goes …