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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

What did the Roman's (aka Labour) ever do for us?

I have previously expressed some irritation at the myths perpetrated by right and left about Labour's record in office at UK level on social policy. From the right claiming that high public spending caused the financial crisis and from the far left that Labour achieved nothing.

Self evidently both positions are unlikely to be correct and therefore I was pleased to see that the London School of Economics have completed a very detailed review of the evidence. They conclude that Labour spent a lot, achieved important outcomes and the big expansion of public spending before the recession did not cause the fiscal crisis. This follows a Joseph Rowntree report that made some similar points in a Scottish context.

Public spending under Labour went up by 60% - from 39.5 to 47.4% of GDP. Undoubtably a large rise but the UK started from a low point. Until the financial crisis hit in 2008, spending levels were unexceptional by historic UK and international standards as the chart below shows. That spending improved access and quality of services - waiting times fell, pupil-teacher ratios improved as did access to early years provision. Poorer areas got better facilities, lower crime and less vacant housing. Outcomes improved and gaps closed on virtually all the socio- economic indicators Labour targeted, such as poverty for children, pensioners and school attainment.

So the evidence is clear, in the areas Labour targeted there were real improvements. However, the picture is less good in other areas. In particular, benefits for working age people without children fell as a proportion of GDP. This means that poverty for working age people without children rose. There was no real change in levels of income inequality. Wage inequalities grew and disparities in regional economic performance persisted. Efforts to tackle health inequality had mixed results.

So why does this matter now? As Polly Toynbee said in her Guardian column there are deep lessons here for Labour. They failed miserably to blow their own trumpet, doing this good mostly by stealth, unsure that social programmes aimed at the poor would win re-election: "This government gets away with demolishing what Labour did because the social democratic idea behind it was never embedded in the national psyche". Change was not cemented in the hearts and minds of voters. Not even when working people paid the price of the banking bail out did Labour seize the chance to make a stronger social democratic case.

And it could get worse if Labour doesn't make the case for a better way. I was at UNISON's Labour Link Forum this weekend and Dave Prentis made the key point that if Labour leaves a vacuum others will exploit it, primarily UKIP, at least in England. Labour doesn't need to accept Tory spending limits - they need to tear them up.  As we are celebrating the NHS at 65, the two Ed's might want to recall the classic Bevan quote, "We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down."

The Tories can get away with the cuts only if voters believe Labour overspent and left nothing to show for it. This report shows that Labour used the increased spending to expand public services, improve outcomes and make progress towards greater equality. However, income inequality was still high by international standards, and very large socio-economic gaps remained on many indicators of health, education and living conditions. Whether Labour did enough remains an open question - but there were real gains that we should shout about and finish the job in our next policy programme.

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