Big Government is coming back, thanks to the little kids

Will mums learn to love Labour if it gives them a Kindergarten on every corner?

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IS TOMORROW'S much-trailed "Budget for children and families" necessarily going to be a budget for Big Government? Perish the thought, Gordon Brown will say. Look at the aggregates for public spending. His Tory totals mean that the ratio of spending-to-national product currently seems to be in free fall - these hardly look like signs of Nordic extravagance. No one is proffering a state-supported creche in every street.

Not yet, perhaps, but community Kindergarten are on their way. Behind the tax adjustments affecting women and children some ambitious rethinking about children has been taking place. It's only a matter of plans, proposals, seminar papers and projections at this stage. They may never come to fruition. But behind them something important has already happened. It's a rapprochement between Labour and the idea of government.

It's not the kind of thing you hear Alastair Campbell giving briefings about; it may not even be something ministers are aware of. But - on policy for children, at least -New Labour is coming out ... As what Old Labour always was, the party of the state, the muscular, interventionist, big- spending state.

Climatically speaking, during the past twelve months we have moved a long way. Even in its pallid, Majorite form, last March Thatcherism was still identifying government as the problem, the inhibitor, the agent of national decline. New Labour was at first pragmatic and sceptical about government size and capacity. Now, as Brownism starts to define this administration's purposes, the state becomes the little train that can.

For me a moment of epiphany came the other day at the concluding public session of the Cross Departmental Review on Provision for Young Children. On the face of it, this is just another review exercise, one of the scores supposedly coming to fruition this spring; it was distinctive in that it was being led by officials from the Treasury who went around assuring everyone it was not just another cuts exercise.

But the review not yet over, one conclusion is obvious. Ministers are convinced that "early intervention" in children's lives secures major benefits later, for them and for society at large. Whether marshalled by criminologists, doctors or social workers the empirical evidence consistently says: nursery schools, intensive programmes for young mothers (starting before birth), kids' clubs - they work. What that means in turn is that government will have to go to work ... nobody else, no mystical civil society, no free market is going to provide. Ministers who have spent most of their careers in Opposition apologising for government action suddenly find themselves on firm ground in advocating more of it.

Whatever Gordon Brown delivers tomorrow in terms of tax credits for child care, the Budget is only the first shot in a new battery of child-centred policies. For example, if the Treasury is to subsidise women to buy care, education, health and social security are going to take a very keen interest in what kind of care, provided by whom, in whose premises and when. Down that road, sooner or later, you get to the state itself providing care. Practically that means a programme of state-provided "education- rich" care for pre-school children.

But no, ministers will say, we have learned the lessons of our collectivist past. We believe in splitting customers and contractors, purchasers and providers: the state may will some social end without getting into the business of employing care workers, or teachers. There will be talk about "empowerment". Ministers will praise the voluntary sector and imply that a hundred flowers will bloom as volunteers are drafted or bribed into providing creches and clubs. But in the final analysis, the state will be there, as funder and, in many cases, direct provider. In Britain, of course, it is considered rather bad form to talk about "the state" in this way. Locally it looks like councils, quangos, the National Health Service - diverse and disaggregated. But collective, compulsory provision it remains.

Is this socialism - is Labour reverting to historical type and substituting tax-financed public sector activity for the free choices of individuals and families? It's striking, isn't it, how tired that Tory rhetoric now sounds. Also how irrelevant. In its emerging policies for children - Gordon Brown would be well advised to leave the touchy-feely stuff about "family" to his next door neighbour - Labour is the party of practical collectivism.

One of the real reasons why Big Government was so unloved in its earlier incarnations was that it is, in cause and in effect, redistributionist. It uses richer people's money to spend on staff and projects which benefit the poorer. In run-down estates the voluntary sector can't do child care with education. As women move into employment they will need somewhere to leave their kids. If child-minding alone won't do those kids any good, government will have to supply the wherewithal, the premises, the trained workers, the will to get the clubs up and running. Redistribution, here we come.

Is there a political will for it? Probably not. Yet Labour might manage if it bundled income and jobs redistribution with what looks on the surface like gender redistribution. Will women at large give them cover?

Women want child care; preferably they do not want to pay for it directly; most would prefer the care of very young children to involve some effort to stimulate their minds, bodies and imaginations. One of the great current questions of politics has to be whether mothers are prepared to put their political choices where they say their interests lie.

For there is little historical doubt that Big Government and the emancipation of women from domestic servitude have done hand in hand. For all his goat- like tendencies a father of feminism was David Lloyd George (who recruited women in large numbers to make munitions in the First World War); another was Harold Wilson, who exapanded the public services and with them a huge raft of women-friendly jobs.

Old Labour can hardly have been said to have benefited politically from the association. Even if now, as the polls suggest, New Labour wins the younger female plaudits, it is hard to see clear gender-based lines offering reliable electoral support. Older generations of marxist and socialist women sometimes entertained warm thoughts about the state, but younger movers and shakers of the Natasha Walters and Kate Figes stamp seem distinctly ambiguous. Can Labour persuade them Big Government is worth it, for the children's sake?

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