Pie-in-the-sky policy

New Labour’s 'eye-catching initiatives' make the headlines when they fail.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Over the Christmas period, there seemed to be a report every day about some failed New Labour initiative.

The much-heralded ‘night courts’ were supposed to deal summary justice to Britain’s ‘yobs’. But they were called off after pilot projects in London and Manchester found that night-sittings are up to 40 times more expensive than daytime court hearings (1).

Throughout 2002 New Labour abandoned many of its initiatives, having unveiled them just months earlier. The UK government churns out policy after policy in health, education, welfare and crime – and often the only thing the policies seem to have in common is their ineffectiveness.

Child curfews were announced in the 2001 Queen’s Speech, but more than a year on none has been successfully established (2). Few councils have tried to use ‘anti-social behaviour orders’, meant to crack down on nightmare neighbours – and those that have, found them costly and confusing (3).

In May 1998, prime minister Tony Blair suggested obliging parents of truants to carry pagers so that they could be warned if their children went missing. What ever happened to that idea? In July 2000, police chiefs dismissed the idea of on-the-spot fines as ‘unworkable’, a month after Blair first announced them (4).

New Labour’s welfare reform, heralded as stemming benefit fraud and encouraging the ‘work-shy’ into steady jobs, has also floundered. In 2001, the government brought in powers to dock benefits from those convicted twice of fiddling the system, but these powers have still not been used. New Deal programmes for the unemployed over-50s and disabled were taken up by fewer than five percent of those invited (5).

The £40millon overhaul of NHS menus, overseen by a team of celebrity chefs including Loyd Grossman, has been denounced as ‘slop’ by nurses (6). Some hospital managers said that they couldn’t afford to pay the extra cost that was required for the recipes, which included dishes such as navarin of lamb with couscous.

These New Labour policies are conceived as much for their ‘message’ as their practical result. Getting Loyd Grossman to provide menus for the NHS was more a publicity stunt than a serious attempt to improve hospital food. Marching drunken youths to cashpoints to pay fines is about projecting a ‘tough on crime’ image rather than actually being tough. And this focus on how policies look, rather than how they will work, marks them out for failure.

New Labour’s problems with policymaking are less the result of its foibles and inadequacies (though it certainly has enough of these), and more the result of its peculiar position today.

New Labour is a party of its time, when politics is no longer about ideology or political principle but about administration and personality. In the absence of a clash of ideas, politics has become about managing society rather than offering visions for society’s future.

But New Labour cannot be wholly content with being a bunch of managers – it feels the need to justify its leadership of society, to show that it is taking things forward. And it is this that creates the initiative drive, with the government constantly seeking ways to assert a sense of mission. In a notorious memo leaked in July 2000, Blair demanded more ‘eye-catching initiatives’ with which the government could grab the headlines (8). Within New Labour, there is a restless search for the Next Big Policy Idea.

But all the energy put into dreaming up the next initiative quickly goes to waste when reality intervenes – meaning that many New Labour policies end in failure.

Take hospital food. What it needed was an unglamorous reorganisation, which probably wouldn’t cost too much and wouldn’t make any big headlines. But instead of getting down to the dull job (or just allowing hospitals to do it on their own), New Labour tried to show that it was doing something amazing and groundbreaking with hospital grub.

Then there was the ‘baby bond’ policy, floated to great acclaim just before the 2001 general election. Each newborn baby in the UK would be given a Child Trust Fund, and the money would be invested until they became adults (9). Blair inflated the significance of the bonds, saying that they would help create a ‘real land of opportunity for all’ – though in real terms, the resulting £1800 savings would last an 18-year-old only a few months.

There is no real need for baby bonds, and few people seem keen to take them up. Arguably, the greatest impact of the policy announcement was among New Labourish think-tanks, who began a catfight to claim authorship of the scheme.

New Labour exists in a political universe of dull greys. But rather than accepting the job of meticulous administration that it has marked out for itself, it persists in imposing its eye-catching fantasies upon the British population.

Read on:

For fewer laws, not more, by Mick Hume

(1) Night courts ‘to be dropped’, BBC News, 30 December

(2) What happened to last year’s big idea?, BBC News, 13 November 2002

(3) Can anti-social behaviour be curbed?, BBC News, 14 November 2002

(4) Labour’s long war on ‘yob culture’, BBC News, 30 December 2002

(5) ‘New Deal powers to punish workshy are rarely used’, The Times, 2 January 2003

(6) Hospital food remains in a critical condition, Guardian, 14 November 2002

(7) Chefs revitalise hospital food, Guardian, 9 May 2001

(8) Full text of Blair memo, BBC News, 17 July 2000

(9) Protests at birth of baby bonds, Guardian, 27 April 2001

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Topics Politics


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