27 JANUARY 2001, Page 15


Frank Field says that the government should

revive the welfare system destroyed by left-wing, middle-class reformers

GORDON BROWN promises a silent revolution. Within five years we will witness the 'biggest' transfer of power from the state to the individual. These words are welcome, and should be viewed with a hopeful scepticism. The Chancellor's emphasis is on grey power plugging gaps in current state provision. There is no mention here of transferring lock, stock and barrel state functions to non-government agencies. Yet such proposals will begin to dominate politics in the next Parliament. For the Tories, thinking the unthinkable, as it is called in welfare, has to be implemented if serious tax cuts are to be made. Similarly, for Labour, running welfare beyond the reach of the state's sticky fingers will be the last chance the centre-left has of maintaining collective provision in the face of growing voter hostility to tax.

All the moves outlined by Gordon Brown's recent declaration are to be welcomed, but each gives away the game. A third of the first 600 computer learning centres are to be run by community organisations. but the vast majority of schools are to remain in the iron grip of hardline LEA officials.

Similarly welcome is the community control of Healthy Living Centres. At the same time, central government strengthens its hold on the NHS. Each horror story, known to many ordinary users of the service — of a devoted staff working all too often in filthy conditions, feeding patients inadequate diets and seeing tens of thousands of them infected with diseases they did not have before entering the hospital domain — is met with the promise of more taxpayers' money. Money does have a part to play, but how it is raised, who decides how it is spent, and to whom these decision-makers are responsible, are now more important than crude budget increases.

Likewise Gordon Brown's repudiation of 'the man [sic] from Whitehall knowing best' is good news. But the illustration of who might know more is again highly revealing. We are reassured that the women from the WRVS, the mothers from the playgroup, or local volunteers with their own expertise, might know better. Better than whom? is the key question. And if they know better than the state in these areas, might not their greater expertise profit the main state services of health, education and social security which, after all, command over 60 per cent of all money taken from taxpayers?

For the Tories, such thinking is necessary if they are to have serious plans to cut direct taxation. But here is an equal challenge to Labour, who in the next Parliament will be judged on how effective central control has been in improving public services. It is on this front that Labour desperately needs to meet the challenge, as the old campaign slogan went. And, to do so safely, all New Labour has to do is to rediscover the roots of Old Labour — not the ration-book uniformity of state socialism, but those little and sometimes not so little commonwealths where Old Labour organised its own welfare state without a thought of seeking help from central government.

The history of the welfare state is taught through the eyes of those who believe state control of welfare was not only good but also inevitable. Not surprisingly, therefore, few MPs or activists know that before the 1880s perhaps a quarter of children were educated in working-class private schools. They were what vast numbers of workingclass parents chose to pay for. They rejected middle-class attempts to organise, punish and control their children, A genuine change of Labour heart would be to put in the next manifesto a pledge for schools to be governed by parents. And before too many clever people throw up their arms in horror at such a suggestion, it is worth remembering that parental control would never have allowed so many schools to fall Into the chaos, disorder and lack of achievement from which David Blunkett is attempting to rescue them.

A similar story is to be told on health. When Nye Bevan nationalised the hospitals, thereby beating Herbert Morrison in the process, a third of the budget of London hospitals was raised by voluntary effort, and perhaps 25 per cent for hospitals in the provinces. Such a fund-raising effort, of course, is unimaginable in today's NHS. Who wants to raise vast sums when unelected, faceless officials decide how that money is spent?

A government determined to transfer power away from Whitehall would have in its manifesto a pledge to see all health trusts locally elected. Such trusts would have the power to decide the range of services, in what area hospitals should specialise (apart from being clean and feeding patients adequately), and the promise of keeping all the money raised locally on top of any allocation from taxation. And what about a revolution on this front as well? Voters overwhelmingly want to contribute more to their healthcare. What about introducing a new national insurance coverage which no government could spend on other programmes?

The working class created a welfare system long before left-wing, middle-class reformers insisted on state provision. Membership of mutual and friendly societies was six times greater than trade-union membership, although there was a heavy overlap between the two organisations. Here was a social-security system built up by member contributions, which was also controlled by the membership. It was self-policing and the rules against fiddling were, thankfully, brutally enforced. No mutual or friendly society committee believed all that guff that welfare cheats did not know what they were doing.

Of course, this mutually based socialsecurity system faced problems; but they were nowhere near as great as those facing today's state system. And the system's main drawback, of failing to cover everybody, could have been dealt with in time by expanding from this secure base rather than wiping it out with a bureaucratic, impersonal, centralised system.

This government had a golden opportunity to extend non-state pensions, Yet Gordon Brown resisted using stakeholder pensions as a means of securing a vast extension of member-owned organisations to provide adequate funded pensions in the future. Instead, a market-led solution, which had given us not so long ago the mega pension mis-selling scandal, was his preferred option.

In each of these areas — education, health and social security — Labour will have to think in a radical way if improved collective services are to be delivered to a growing group of impatient voters. Such moves would really transform our society.

Frank Field is Labour NIP for Birkenhead.