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Charles Clarke defends New Labour’s ‘patchy’ record on public service reform

The former Education Secretary and Home Secretary accepted that some of the Blair government’s reforms were flawed, but defended its achievements overall

John Rentoul
Wednesday 14 February 2018 12:12 GMT
Charles Clarke, right, addressing the ‘Blair Years’ class at King’s College London on Monday, with Michelle Clement, Jon Davis and John Rentoul
Charles Clarke, right, addressing the ‘Blair Years’ class at King’s College London on Monday, with Michelle Clement, Jon Davis and John Rentoul

Charles Clarke, former Home Secretary and a visiting professor at King’s College London, came to talk to the “Blair Years” MA class on Monday that I teach with Jon Davis and Michelle Clement.

He spoke about the New Labour record on public service reform, which he said was “very patchy”, but he nevertheless defended it under tough questioning from students. One asked whether New Labour’s use of the private sector in delivering public services had opened the way for the Conservative government’s privatisation drive, like a “scratch that turned into gangrene”.

Clarke said he disagreed with what the Conservatives had done to Labour programmes such as academy schools, but added: “You can’t not make a change because someone else might do a different thing later on, or you’d never do anything”.

He said Michael Gove redefined academies, trying to extend them to all secondary schools and to primary schools. This “took away the driving force of our programme, which was to turn round schools in areas of chronic under-achievement”.

Nor did he agree with the tripling of tuition fees, but on the principle of fees repaid after graduation he said: “I stand by that – the big change made by Labour was that [public] money went into primary and secondary education instead of into universities.” Fees brought in new revenue to universities, freeing up public spending for schools and early years.*

Clarke also took issue with the claim that Labour had been engaged in privatisation. “Language is important. I get angry about the use of the word privatisation. For me, in health, privatisation would be charging people for services at the point of use. Imprecise language is an obstacle to debate.”

He said it was not sensible to assume that public is always good and private bad. When he was chair of housing on Hackney Council in the 1980s, he said, the council’s own workforce, known as the direct labour organisation, had work rotas for street cleaning that included streets bombed in the Second World War that no longer existed. These were work practices defended by the National Union of Public Employees, the local government trade union, “one of whose officials was one J Corbyn”.

And he defended Labour’s use of the Private Finance Initiative: “It was a mechanism for building hospitals and schools you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do.” But he admitted there were problems, and that there were a number of other “mis-starts” in public service reform, such as performance-related pay for teachers.

He was also pressed on the question of whether targets in public services divert professionals into form filling and gaming the system. “Targets are flawed,” Clarke said, “but the assumption of not having targets is that things would all come good without them.”

He said that when the Conservatives introduced Ofsted and national school inspections (in 1992), Labour was opposed. “The view Labour was aligned with then was that we don’t need inspections because schools will get on with it. I founded something called the Education World Forum, bringing together education ministers from around the world, which held its annual meeting last month. Everyone agrees that without some force that is driving improvement, it won’t happen.”

He admitted that, overall, Labour had a “very patchy record of reform”. Tony Blair had four priorities, he said: education, health, crime and transport. “In each case, you need a Secretary of State, a Permanent Secretary, someone at the No 10 Policy Unit and someone at the Treasury to be in favour of the process. I haven’t drawn a chart to see where there was this alignment, but it didn’t happen often. Often Tony was in favour of reform and Gordon was against. And there were occasions when Tony was in favour of ‘reform’ without knowing what reform he wanted.”


*After the class, I asked him about Ed Balls’s view, when he came to the class two weeks ago, that a graduate tax would have been a better way to finance universities’ expansion. This would be an extra income tax paid by new graduates – in practice similar to a fee and loan scheme but without the element of debt.

Balls was adviser to Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, who had doubts about the tuition fee policy when it was being drawn up in 2002-03. Brown stalled but refused to come up with an alternative plan for a graduate tax. Balls said this was because he knew that Tony Blair wouldn’t accept it.

Clarke did not think that was the real reason. “Gordon was opposed because he thought you could do only one new tax in a parliament, and in 2001-05 that was the National Insurance rise for the NHS, so he was trying to delay a graduate tax until after 2005.”

But Clarke thought that the case for fees and loans was stronger in any case – although when he was appointed Education Secretary in 2002 he was leaning towards a graduate tax: “When I was appointed, I told Tony I may want to do a graduate tax when I had looked at all the options. I hadn’t gone into great detail at that point but I thought that a graduate tax was likely to be the best option. He said: ‘If that is what you decide, then fine. I don’t think you will come to that conclusion. Having looked at it myself I think the contingent fees way is best.’”

(Briefly, the main problems with a graduate tax are that it would take a long time for revenue to come in, whereas with fees the government acquires an asset in the form of student debt straight away; and that universities would still be dependent on government for all their income.)

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