Frank Dobson: Don't spring any more of these divisive issues on us

The big question now is whether Blair will conclude that this time things got too close for comfort
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The Independent Online

In the end I was surprised at how close it was. I suspected Nick Brown's last minute change of heart would mean a larger victory for the Government in the Commons' vote on top-up fees. But it turned out to be another Houdini-like escape for Tony Blair.

The big question now is whether he will feel vindicated by the vote and inspired to spring some other divisive initiative on the Labour Party, or whether he will conclude that this time things got too close for comfort and should not be repeated. I hope he goes for the latter. For if he does, we can present a united front, get on with implementing and advocating the Government's many sensible policies and go into the next general election with a record to be proud of, and policies which address the day-to-day problems of ordinary people and have wide electoral appeal.

In future, we must formulate policies so that aspects designed to bring some benefits to the worst off are there from the start. They shouldn't have to be wrung out of the Government as a series of concessions to help them scrape through the Commons where we should have a majority of 160. After all, the Government has got the country back on its feet - a Britain at work not a Britain on benefits, a Britain where far more people who work for a living are now being paid a living wage, as a result of the combined effects of the national minimum wage and tax credits.

With Labour, the British economy has avoided the downturn suffered by every other economy in the developed world. Inflation and interest rates are at their lowest for a generation. Many run-down schools, hospitals and clinics have been rebuilt and there is more to come. The market renewal fund and measures to tackle rogue landlords and loan sharks are set to deal with some of the worst evils in the most run-down neighbourhoods. Nursery education has been expanded. School education is improving. The NHS, already the most popular institution in the country, is getting better. Survival and recovery rates from cancer and heart disease are better. The situation in Northern Ireland, despite the current difficulties, is no longer the running sore it was - and Tony Blair deserves immense personal credit for that.

The public all too soon accept such improvements as part of the natural landscape. So we need to work hard to get the political credit for what is being achieved and to provide a convincing platform for the further pledges we will be putting forward at the next general election. But instead of that, for the last year, politics has been dominated by arguments about invading Iraq, foundation hospitals and top-up fees - none of which commanded either the instinctive or intellectual support of many in the Labour Party or in the country.

Some of the concerns about foundation hospitals and top-up fees sprang from a fear that they would prove just the first of many ideas based on the conviction that competition is automatically beneficial and that public services should be financed by charging the users - co-payments as they are called. There seemed a real danger that instead of being the party of co-operation, we would become the party of co-payment.

Let me give an example. The stables which promoted top-up fees include some who advocate co-payments for going into hospital or to see the doctor. Some want to see the better-off being able to top up a standard charge for treatment with their own money to get better or quicker treatment - no doubt from a competing hospital. No one can deny that markets have their merits but they usually result in those who are the best off getting the best deal and the people with least money ending up with cheaper and inferior goods and services. So the introduction of market forces and charges into the public services is likely to widen the economic and social inequalities our party has pledged to reduce.

Throughout the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher got away with claiming that inequality was good, that if we all look after "number one" we all prosper, that there was no such thing as society. In 1997 and 2001, the British people rejected that ideology. The fact is that most of the British electorate are against inequality. They also understand that if most people are to have a decent quality of life we have all to work together to provide it and club together to pay for it. These are Labour ideas so we are playing to our strengths when we emphasise them. We must do it again.

The writer is a Labour MP and former Cabinet minister