The Week in Politics: Things have only got better. But will it help Blair on polling day?

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The Independent Online

Why did the Cabinet discuss EastEnders at its weekly meeting on Thursday? No, it is not making another complaint to the BBC about bias because Charles Kennedy is to appear in the soap's Christmas special.

Why did the Cabinet discuss EastEnders at its weekly meeting on Thursday? No, it is not making another complaint to the BBC about bias because Charles Kennedy is to appear in the soap's Christmas special.

It was Michael Barber, the head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, who told ministers about a recent episode during a 15-minute slide projection about the state of Britain's public services: when Ian says that "people spend at least five hours in A&E", Jane replies: "It's a lot better nowadays." As one cabinet minister interjected: "That's worth more than 10 ministerial speeches."

For ministers, the line in the EastEnders script epitomised a small but important change in the political weather. Since 1997, Tony Blair's progress towards his central goal of turning round public services has been painfully slow and, with an election now only five months away, he would have hoped to be much further down the track by now.

One of the trends that most perplexes him is the "perception gap" between people's view of their local services ­ which is getting better, particularly among regular users of them ­ and their less favourable impression of the nation's services generally.

But there are some cautious grounds for optimism that the gap is closing. Professor Barber's charts had 26 green lights, showing that the public thinks services are improving, and only three red ones indicating the opposite. The number of "delivery facts" that the Government would love us to believe has risen from six to eight since the spring.

Professor Barber did not pretend that everything in the garden was wonderful. But he did provide some evidence of green shoots ­ particularly on education, which more people now think is getting better than believe it is getting worse. The two big problem areas for the Government are crime and "immigration and asylum" (which is seen as one issue by the public despite efforts by ministers to separate them out). Hence the plethora of crime measures in the Queen's Speech last month and a Blair blitz on immigration planned for the new year.

Lord Butler of Stockwell, the former cabinet secretary who made searing criticisms of Mr Blair's autocratic approach this week, might view the initiatives on crime and immigration as another example of government-by-headline. But the Prime Minister sees it differently: to ignore people's concerns would be political suicide.

Professor Barber's message to the Cabinet, in effect, was that perception is reality. He told ministers: "The chances of being a victim of crime are the lowest they have been since the British Crime Survey started in 1981. But that is not what people feel." As he explained to me after the cabinet meeting, it is not an option for a government to say that "people are wrong". If people feel threatened by crime, that affects their daily lives.

Why the perception gap between what people think of local services and the national picture? Professor Barber gave me four reasons. First, a "time lag" before people notice service improvements. A few years ago, people did not think there were more teachers and nurses. Now, increasingly, they recognise that there are thousands more, but they are impatient for results.

Second, the improvements in some services have been from a low base, with the quality provided moving from "not good" to "adequate". So people are not going to dance in the streets when 12-hour waits in A&E are cut to a maximum of four hours, as they will be this month. Similarly, someone who waits six months for surgery is not really interested that the wait has come down from two years.

Third, people's expectations are rising all the time. As consumers, they expect supermarkets to get better, so why not schools and hospitals? So the Government finds itself running to catch up.

Finally, the media's portrayal of public services is bound to focus on the problems rather than the successes. A story about a failing school will get more coverage than improving primary schools.

Ministers left their briefing in an upbeat mood. For the Blairites, the lesson was that big, controversial changes bring big results. Downing Street has noticed, for example, that the NHS seems to be getting better faster in England than in Wales, which has been less keen to swallow the reform medicine.

That is why Mr Blair wants to push through another set of reforms if he wins a third term. As Alan Milburn, Labour's election and policy co-ordinator, told the Social Market Foundation on Wednesday: "This is the time to keep our foot on the accelerator of reform, not the brake." He argued that devolving more "power to the people" could help satisfy their aspirations for better services: "Just as New Labour has reclaimed the mantle of economic competence from the Conservatives, we must stake our claim to the new territory of consumer choice and community empowerment."

Almost eight years since Labour promised it, things really are getting better. But whether those green shoots flower before the election is another matter. The danger for Mr Blair is that many people may pocket the improvements without giving the credit to a government they feel in no mood to thank or reward.

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