Tony Blair: I have learned the limits of government

After five years, I know only too well that legislation will not solve vandalism or raise standards

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The defining trait of the social democratic view of community is that it should be based on solidarity. We look out for each other and are tolerant of our differences. Labour believes in a "fraternal" community, where our relationship with each other is not just instrumental or efficient, but based on inter-connectedness and common values.

It is nonsensical to talk about such a community unless all its members are of equal worth and have an equal chance to fulfil their potential. However, we should also be wary of getting hooked on definitional disputes about equality. Tony Crosland was clear that equality was the goal. He was equally clear that this did not mean arithmetic equality and that, while debates about the exact meaning of equality were important for academics, politicians should get on with tackling the real inequalities that disfigure society. Drive off the main road in any town, and the chances are you will soon find yourself in an estate with poor housing, struggling schools, petty vandalism and, most of all, broken hope.

I am proud of our record on social exclusion and welfare reform. Today's Conservative Party would never have lifted over a million children out of poverty, or increased the pensions of the poorest by over £1,000 a year. But I am under no illusion that public spending is the only solution. Old-style redistributionist approaches will not eliminate the fundamental inequalities in our society. The greatest indictment of our movement over the last 100 years is that relative social mobility has barely changed, despite the efforts of successive Labour governments and a prolonged consensus around the welfare state.

We will not address the basic inequalities in our society until we remove the barriers to social mobility, and allow people to flourish on their merit and effort. It is wrong to suggest that the values of equality and rewarding merit are opposed to each other. In fact, they support each other – the most egalitarian societies are also those with the highest level of social mobility. As a government, we know that to reduce inequality, we have to kindle the flames of aspiration.

Nor is equality sufficient to building a fraternal community. In the 1980s and 1990s we allowed ourselves to be boxed into a corner where we appeared only to care about equality – and a caricatured equality of outcome at that. We left the language of freedom to the Conservatives.

A key task for our second term is to grasp the opportunity of civic renewal. That means a commitment to making the state work better but, most of all, it means strengthening communities themselves.

Our public services are a central expression of our commitment to community. It is there that we find many of the people most committed to working for their communities. It is because that work is so important that the Government is committed to improving and reforming public services. We are putting in the investment and will continue to do so. Yet investment is not enough. As a government, we need to convince front-line workers that the reason we want reform is to address their own frustrations with ossified working practices, the absence of meritocracy and lack of leadership. Yet, in driving forward that programme of reform, we face a dilemma: how to promote national standards while also empowering front-line workers.

A clear focus on outcomes allows us to give freedoms back to public service workers – if a service can be accountable for what it achieves, we need worry far less about how it achieves it. Accountability for outcomes allows us to give freedom over means:

* Giving schools the power to innovate, including the ability to vary conditions of employment and the content of the curriculum;

* Devolving the power to commission health care to local primary care trusts, run by patients, doctors and nurses;

* Rewarding police officers who perform the most important front-line tasks and cutting the bureaucratic burden so more time can be spent on the beat.

We are also devolving power back to local government. After decades of centralisation of power, our White Paper is resolutely aimed at giving councils back their ability to act for their communities.

So we need public services that empower front-line workers, and respond to the needs of the citizens who pay for them. But, after five years in government, I know only too well that passing legislation, or making a speech, will not solve vandalism on estates, raise standards in secondary schools, look after the elderly at risk.

Indeed, the state can sometimes become part of the problem, by smothering the enthusiasm of its citizens. Responsive public services are part of the solution. We also need to do more to give power directly to citizens. Communities that are inter-connected are healthier. If we play football together, run parent-teacher associations together, sing in choirs or learn to paint together, then we are less likely to want to cause harm to each other.

Governments don't cause that kind of civic renewal, although we can help or hinder it. Instead, this is a task of renewal by a thousand small steps, by ministers and civil servants, councillors and public service workers, and most of all by citizens and communities.

This is also a task for the Labour Party and our wider movement. The most active party branches are the most positive, and those best able to retain and recruit members. But this best practice is not universal. Party membership is down overall. Cynicism with politics is up. Around 90 per cent of members' involvement in political discussion is with other members, not the communities we seek to serve.

If the party's goal is truly to change our society, we need to change the way we operate. I hope this goal will not be seen as a way of sidelining the role of members in policy. I have been passionate about giving more power to individual members – by reducing the power of the block vote, developing new policy forums, appointing a party chair to represent members in Cabinet, and by rejuvenating my local party in Sedgefield.

Again, none of this can be directed from the centre. It depends on the work of MPs, councillors, activists and members. This is a call to action for everyone in our party. The challenge is to be open to new ideas and to examine whether our policies are working. I recognise that also places a duty on ministers and the National Executive Committee. We need to be relaxed about debate. We need to make devolution work within the party. We need to identify those local Labour Party initiatives that work, and spread them around the country.

My belief that our party is up to this task comes from my experience of our shared values. We share a fundamental belief in creating a fraternal community based on the values of equality, freedom, fairness and diversity. Pursued without dogma, those are also the values of the British people. In our first term, we laid the foundations for transforming our society so that it matches up to those high aspirations. We have dragged the political debate on to our ground. The Opposition now parrot our agenda. But we need the courage to see that project through.

A longer version of this article appears in 'Renewal', the journal of Labour politics. For details see www.renewal.org.uk

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