Frank Dobson: Sloganising won't win back Labour's disaffected activists

We don't want any more initiatives from the team that gave us top-up fees and foundation hospitals
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At the end of the Labour Party conference, I want to see our Government getting the credit it deserves and our party well placed to win the next general election.

The biggest obstacles to this are the distractions the Government has brought upon itself. Instead of concentrating on publicising its successes, the Government has become, time and again, mired in controversy - gratuitous controversy such as top-up fees and foundation hospitals. It has become distracted from tried and tested ways of improving public services into sloganising about choice, diversity and competition. Above all, Iraq has distracted public attention from everything else the Government is doing, while to the public Iraq appears to distract the Government's attention from concentrating on the things that count.

The ill-judged involvement in Bush's adventurism in Iraq has turned a vile tyranny which threatened neither Britain nor America or world peace, into a cauldron of terror which threatens everyone. Iraq now provides an arsenal and training ground for regional, national and international terrorism. On a political level, it is like a chronic illness where obvious, horrible symptoms come and go with no sign of a cure. If the Prime Minister refuses to recognise that, it will be difficult to take something positive out of this conference, but - in the interests of the people whom we represent - we must try.

To make progress anywhere on the domestic agenda, we need to come up with policies which are seen to be practical, sensible and popular - not just with the public but with the Labour Party activists whose work is crucial to our chances in marginal seats. Despite all the free-market, individualist propaganda to the contrary, most of both the public and the party recognise that we have to come together, through government bodies and local authorities, to provide decent schools, hospitals and clinics, to ensure security in retirement, to provide cover when we fall ill, have an accident or lose our jobs, and to make sure that we feel safe on the streets where we live. And most people recognise we have to club together to pay for what we want.

Experience shows that co-operation delivers the best local public services. That is why the Government slogans about choice and diversity for consumers and competition between suppliers in education and health don't go down very well with most of the public. Most people don't give high priority to choice when it comes to hospitals and schools. Their top priority is a local school to offer their children a good education, a local hospital or clinic to offer them prompt, top-quality treatment. They see a choice between a good school and a bad one as a no-brainer, no choice at all. They know, even if ministers don't, that shopping around for education or health care is not like going on a shopping spree, it's more often a pain than a pleasure.

To get in line with public and party opinion the Prime Minister should drop this emphasis on reform of public services. Improvement yes, but no more reorganisation. We have provided more money, we have made some necessary changes, we have massively increased the numbers of teachers, nurses and doctors. Now we should let the people working in the public services get on with their jobs. We should listen more to the people imbued with the public-service ethic, who kept the public services going through the Conservative years and pay less attention to the free-marketeers who said the privatised railways would be a success, that privatised gas and electricity companies would keep prices down and who believe that competition between oil companies keeps down the price of oil.

If the Prime Minister insists on producing another slew of items on the "public-service reform agenda" it won't cut much ice with the public, it won't enthuse the party activists, it will dismay those we depend upon to provide the services and it will distract attention from the Government's many achievements.

The economy is in a good state and better than almost any developed country, public finances are sounder than they were under the Tories. Unemployment has been slashed and many areas now have full employment - some have labour shortages. The combined effects of the minimum wage and tax credits have raised the take-home pay of the worst off in work. Schools generally are doing much better. Hospitals and clinics are being modernised or replaced and treatment standards are rising. NHS Direct is a phenomenally popular public-service success. Sure Start and other programmes are helping to improve the life chances of some of the most deprived children. Crime is falling. Standards of living are the highest in our history.

None of the above owes much to choice and diversity. So, if the Government is to receive the credit that it deserves, we don't want any more policy initiatives from the team that gave us top-up fees and foundation hospitals.

That still leaves Iraq. Why did you do it Tony? Why, oh why?

The writer is a former Secretary of State for Health

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