The only way to be radical is to be prudent

Peter Mandelson replies to the Independent

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The idea that the left faces a perpetual choice between being prudent and radical has dogged us for years. This must be exposed for what it is: a false choice which serves nobody but the Tories. It was an idea put with great vigour in The Independent leading article yesterday ("Stake out the centre, by all means, but don't call it radical"). The Government looked "very prudent" we were informed, but "the hard reality is, you can't look or feel radical at the same time as you stroke and soothe the middle ground. Radical means change and change upsets people".

Having set out the choice the leader commended the Government's prudence whilst scolding us for presuming to call ourselves radical. It agreed with Labour's economic policy. It agreed that nothing justifies departing from the spending limits set by the previous government. It singled out health and education as needing extra cash - ignoring the fact that Gordon Brown did that, too, in the budget! - but agreed that the total spend had to be kept to. It even supported our decision to implement the cuts in lone parent benefit, calling on Labour, in language that would get a government minister lynched, to "distance itself from the poverty lobby".

It may seem odd to take issue with an article pledging apparent support with the Government's economic policy, but the sting was in the tail. If we were determined to be this prudent why did we want to win the next election? What for? Was the Government just "a vehicle for consolidation and compromise" that had abandoned the aspiration of radicalism for ever?

This snootiness needs to be challenged on two fronts. First, the intellectual absurdity of the position that economic prudence precludes radicalism. There is absolutely no basis for this damaging assertion. It effectively defines radicalism as imprudence and taunts the left with the message, "you can't call yourself a radical unless you take risks with the economy". This is the opposite of the truth. All logic and historical precedent tells us that you cannot be a radical if you take risks with the economy. As Labour has found to its cost in the past, unless governments get the economic fundamentals right, they cannot pursue radical objectives, because they become preoccupied with fire-fighting.

The other definition which was used yesterday to define radicalism is that it should upset people. "Without upsetting someone, some day, somewhere (and that means people who matter, not rich potential donors), you can't be radical." Again the logic of this is faulty.

Of course not all policies will please everybody: there are always losers as well as winners from virtually every political decision; but upsetting the maximum number of people should not define radicalism. Presumably "people who matter" are the voters, and, as the Tories found out at the last election, the best way to upset them is to break promises. But breaking promises is not radical, it is radically stupid. It is not something which this Government is going to do. The test of radicalism is how far a government is prepared to please people by delivering a radical programme, not how far it is prepared to upset people by radically departing from it.

Which brings me to the second basis on which the leading article needs to be challenged. This is the erroneous assertion that this Government is proving the thesis by choosing prudence rather than radicalism, while pretending to be all things to all people. Certainly we are being prudent. It is right that we take tough decisions to put the economy on track for the long term. It is right that we tackle the huge deficit in the public finances left to us by the Tories. And it is certainly right that we take no chances with inflation, by acting now.

But the argument that we are not radical just does not stand up. At the election, people wondered how much of a difference we would make. We are making progress - not just the five pledges but the whole manifesto. Schools are getting pounds 1bn more next year, and pounds 1.3bn for capital repairs. We are training up every primary school teacher to hit our targets on literacy and numeracy. We have funded summer and after-school clubs to help kids catch up. And we have already legislated to raise the money to cut class sizes.

We are tackling long-term and youth unemployment. The pounds 3.5bn programme to get people to work, based on the principle that rights and responsibilities go together, is the most ambitious programme yet seen to counter economic exclusion. Pilots start in January, the full programme in May, and we are extending new opportunities to lone parents and disabled people.

There is pounds 1.2bn next year, pounds 300m this year, for the NHS. But with money goes modernisation: a new cooperation with social services, new emphasis on public health, special action against breast cancer, the end of two- tier waiting lists, and a White Paper next week with a new regime to lever up standards and efficiency.

We have modernised politics. A Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly and elected mayors are already on the way.

And we have brought purpose and vision to our relations with Europe. The Jobs Summit was the latest occasion where we demonstrated the benefits of working with our partners not against them.

Nor can it be said that we have not been prepared to take on powerful people who disagree with us. Try telling that to the bosses of the privatised utilities whose companies have funded the pounds 5.3bn windfall levy to pay for our jobs programme. Or the lawyers, whose abuse of the Legal Aid system will be stopped by our radical no win, no fee proposals.

Thus radicalism and prudence not only can coexist, but they must. The left has tormented itself for far too long on the sort of arguments put forward yesterday on these pages. It is time that we recognise the choice is one that suits the Tories and no one else. The challenge for this Government is to prove for ever that the choice does not exist, so that it can never be posited again. Now that would be radical.

Hamish McRae's column appears today on page 16 with the pre-Budget commentary.

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