Sometimes we should look at what Blair has done, not listen to what he says

All the evidence shows there has been a significant redistribution of wealth under the current government
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The Independent Online

If you want to understand that Britain still has - despite everything - a good Labour government, I have one tip: don't listen to Tony Blair's speeches. Ever. In his peroration yesterday setting the agenda for Labour's election campaign, the Prime Minister directed his comments towards the self-interest of the middle class. "We don't pay taxes for public services simply to invest in a good cause," he said. "To justify the tax paid by each individual, services must deliver for the individual, offering value for money which is as good - if not better - than that which the individual could provide for themselves if they were able."

If you want to understand that Britain still has - despite everything - a good Labour government, I have one tip: don't listen to Tony Blair's speeches. Ever. In his peroration yesterday setting the agenda for Labour's election campaign, the Prime Minister directed his comments towards the self-interest of the middle class. "We don't pay taxes for public services simply to invest in a good cause," he said. "To justify the tax paid by each individual, services must deliver for the individual, offering value for money which is as good - if not better - than that which the individual could provide for themselves if they were able."

This is not a centre-left argument. Blair is building a case for the NHS and for state schools based on the private whims of a few middle-class individuals. Using his logic, if they could demonstrate they would get better value for themselves in the private sector, the middle class should do it, and to hell with the poor, the unlucky and the uninsurable.

But there's a weird contradiction here. Blair's rhetoric - whether blaming the Sixties for our social ills or praising raw marketisation - doesn't fit with the actions of his government. If you only listened to the Prime Minister's public statements, you would assume that the government sprays cash all over services for the middle class. In fact, the evidence shows there has been a significant redistribution of wealth under the current government to the poorest people in Britain.

I know this sounds counter-intuitive after all Blair's right-wing actions and all those photo-ops with Berlusconi and Bush, but let's look at a few real-world examples. Under the Conservatives, education secretaries like Kenneth Baker openly admitted that extra funding was being pumped towards schools in middle-class areas - the very places that needed it least. But last year, a report by the independent business analyst John Atkins for the National Union of Teachers discovered that this Tory policy had been reversed - and then some.

He found that under the current government, the balance of government and council money has been so drastically swung away from middle class schools and in favour of playgrounds filled with poor kids that schools in affluent areas are now at risk of "failing to be financially viable". Atkins said primly, "All this is by design." The Daily Telegraph was horrified, howling about "socialism".

They're right: it is socialism. Anybody who has been to a school in a poor area lately (my nephew goes to one) will know that they are being relentlessly renovated, redesigned and buffed up with so many computers they look like the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey. These policies didn't happen by accident. The Government - led by the same Tony Blair who spoke yesterday - deliberately chose to concentrate resources on the poor.

Nor are schools a one-off. The executives at my local hospital in the East End explained to me recently that they get far more cash than similarly-sized hospitals in leafy suburbs. There's a simple reason: under Labour, health funding is weighted according to how many poor people there are in your area. Now - at last - the poor get more cash spent on them at every level of government than the privileged.

An extensive study by the anti-poverty campaigners the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this week found that the Government's tax credits have directly transferred wads of cash to poor families. Poor mothers are now spending more on children's clothes, footwear, games and toys - and, contrary to right-wing prejudices, they are not spending any more on booze and fags. As the report's author said, "In some of the most important areas, the tide has turned and policy has contributed to turning that tide. This is no mean achievement."

Yet that isn't the story the Prime Minister chooses to tell to the public. Why? Blair is fighting to win in an electoral system where a tiny number of swing seats in Middle England will determine the next inhabitant of Downing Street. Under first-past-the-post, there's no electoral reason to persuade the poor to vote: their ballots would only pile up in already-safe Labour seats.

So you could argue that, on public services and poverty, Tony Blair is being as benign as he can while acting as a rational power-seeking figure within a daft electoral system. His government is talking right but acting left. (The big exceptions are law and order and foreign policy, where he can be hideously right-wing.) There's only one problem with this argument. Even within the constraints of our electoral system, Blair could sell his progressive achievements much harder.

Look, for example, at the health system. The Government has a real, progressive narrative it could tell about the NHS. It goes like this: For the past five years, Britain's hospitals have been undergoing a massive experiment. The Labour government decided in 1999 to ramp up investment in the health service quite dramatically, pushing it so hard that by 2008 it will be 9.4 per cent of British national income. (In the rest of Europe, the average is 8 per cent.)

The truth is that nobody knew what would happen. The Tories and the right-wing press insisted that extra money wouldn't work; it would simply create more bureaucrats, less efficiency, more waste. Labour hoped the money would work - but who could be sure?

Well, now we know. Last week - almost unnoticed and unrecorded - NHS waiting lists hit their lowest level since records began. No fiddling. No twisted figures. The waiting time is now calculated from the moment a patient sees their GP to the moment they clamber into a hospital bed. In 1997, the average waiting time was 18 months and rising. Today, it is 18 weeks and falling. By 2006, the average wait will be just 6 weeks.

If you still don't trust the statistics, there's another way to measure the success of the NHS. Derek Machin, head of the British Medical Association's private practice committee, complains that the massive fall in waiting lists has already put many private cardiac surgeons out of business, and he expects private opthamologists to go bust next.

The Labour case should be clear: investment works. If we want the NHS to keep improving, we need to keep nudging up spending and - yes - taxes. But Blair is not saying this as clearly as he could, or as insistently as Gordon Brown would like. The Prime Minister is blurring the message with Milburnite tripe about increased marketisation within the NHS. This is especially odd since the most marketised part of the health service - the cleaning services - is the most disastrous.

So my suggestion is that all progressives and lefties should simply ignore everything Tony Blair says during this election campaign. Instead - unless you want to sink into wrist-slitting despair - go and visit your local school and hospital and see how they are improving. Oh, and join the Make Votes Count campaign to reform the dumb electoral system that ensures our potential Prime Ministers only ever address the deadest chunk of the dead centre.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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