Alan Milburn: Phew! We might face a battle for the centre ground

Siren voices warn we have gone too far. They urge a go-slow
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The Independent Online

Good. While some may conclude that a more centrist Tory Party creates space for Labour to move to the left, it should actually heighten our resolve to make the centre ground our own. Winning a fourth term makes it a fight we must win. That means more New Labour, not less; pressing forward on reform not turning our back on it.

Reforming Britain's public services has always been a tough test of Tony Blair's government. Patient choice, private sector involvement, city academies and NHS foundation trusts have each proved political flashpoints.

Now siren voices warn we have gone too far. They urge a go-slow. Conversely the Prime Minister admitted in his Labour conference speech that we have not gone far enough. He promises a more liberated approach in the future. He is right to do so.

Firstly, there is a financial imperative behind renewed reform. Choppy waters lie ahead. These are the good times when it comes to big increases in public spending. But they cannot last for ever. And when investment growth slows down, system reform will need to speed up.

But second, there is a performance imperative behind reform. More resources have helped bring about improvements. But real progress coincided with the introduction of specific reforms. From the start specialist schools delivered better than average GCSE results. Hospital waiting times only plummeted when patient choice, private treatment centres and financial incentives started to bite.

Third, there is a fairness imperative behind reform. I feel bemused when voices on the left argue against reform. I thought we came into politics to change things not keep them as they are. So when, despite recent improvements in attainment, the gap between children from lower and higher income families continues to widen - and when failing schools are still concentrated in deprived areas - surely our response should be to change the system, not defend it.

That is what city academies do using new management to take over weak schools and improve results. With academies over-subscribed parental demand suggests we need many more - maybe even than the 200 currently planned. And when some parents use wealth to exercise school choice we should not condemn choice but redistribute it. Reform is a route to realise Labour values, not betray them.

And fourth there is a political imperative behind reform. Delivering public service improvement helps deliver electoral success. And reform is a potent symbol of New Labour's determination to avoid the trap of incumbency by instead relentlessly pursuing a modern, progressive agenda of change.

Reform has helped Tony Blair reshape the centre ground in British politics and force our political opponents to the extremes. But now things may be changing. The Tories might finally be waking from their slumbers.

These factors make the forthcoming education and health white papers so important. They are a critical test of New Labour's ability to set the future agenda. If the education white paper learns from Swedish reforms and American charter schools by giving parents - particularly the poorest - the power to choose then we will pass that test.

So too if it obliges local councils by law to encourage new school providers from the independent and voluntary sectors as well as the public sector so that parents get a wider choice and schools as well as hospitals feel the benefit of managed competition. And it must pass the test of reforming local councils' role so they become commissioners, not providers of school services.

The tests for the health white paper are whether it brings new providers from the private and voluntary sectors into primary care to help break the equation whereby the poorest communities invariably get the poorest services. And whether it extends patient choice into primary, community and social services.

All five tests have one common purpose: to make excellence in public services the preserve not just of some people but of all. That way we can secure the long term sustainability of the progressive values on which public services are founded. Doing so means empowering individual citizens to exercise greater control over their own lives. This is the new radical-centre in British politics. It is territory thinking Tories want to win. We cannot allow them to do so.

Completing what we have started in modernising Britain's public services is not just a matter of securing Tony Blair's legacy. It will help determine whether New Labour can go on winning when he is finally gone.

The writer was Health Secretary, 1999-2003