HL Deb 27 March 2002 vol 633 cc239-46

3.27 p.m.

Lord Patten

rose to call attention to the political philosophy underlying Her Majesty's Government's development and delivery of public policy; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am glad of the opportunity given to me to beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I do so not as a philosopher in any sense at all—not a proper philosopher like my noble friend Lord Quinton and other Members of your Lordships' House—but because I am interested in matters that underpin the governing party's own ideas and policies. With respect, I can find no evidence whatever of there being any present alive, extant political philosophy underlying new Labour's development and delivery of public policy.

I can see that a few of your Lordships' philosophical tendency are gathered here today to join me in discussing these issues. Perhaps I may say that I am a little saddened that no one is to speak, so far as I can see thus far, from the Labour Back Benches on these issues. We do not have, either, the benefit of the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Birt, who I am told thinks "blue skies" thoughts on behalf of No. 10 Downing Street, to guide us.

However, I am extremely happy that the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, is in his place. He has a great reputation as a "Minister about town" and before that as a businessman and media tycoon of great success. I see that he is now adding to his already considerable list of achievements; that of having taken over as the Government's political philosopher in residence in this House. I look forward very much to what he has to say.

My text for this debate is fairly simple. It is that when a government stop thinking, generally speaking, terminal decline sets in. That is what I put before your Lordships today. I can well understand that when things are going extremely well—as they were for the Government after 1997, with a huge majority and a considerable burst of popularity—the idea of underlying philosophies, thinking in concepts and so on is rather relegated to the sidelines. It is a rather unnecessary encumbrance—simply get on with e business of governing and be successful.

The problem is that when trouble sets in, as trouble is so clearly setting in "big time" for the present Labour Government, a great many people—queues of Labour MPs—go on to the media and ask, "What does new Labour stand for?" Without an underpinning of belief or conviction, it is hard for the Government to find something on which to fall back to drive their future agenda. That is why I believe that this debate is important, and why I am so glad that so many of my noble friends are here.

A little history first, as the Michelin guides still say. New Labour's last thinking period seemed to end before 1997, when it had borrowed all the hits of Conservative ideology that suited it—free markets and all the rest. That was politically astute; it was also shameless although a little political cover was sought and spun with the borrowing of some pseudo-philosophical branding from that great global political thinker, Bill Clinton. Thus was the third way imported into the United Kingdom and Labour Party philosophy—now the third way of blessed memory. Pretty quickly, however, amid the excitement of near total power for new Labour post-1997, the third way was unceremoniously dropped overboard, unwanted on voyage any more.

By October 2000, when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, then the Government's political philosopher in this place, answered an Unstarred Question of mine about the Government's assessment of their progress on their third way policies, the best that he could do was to direct me to the Government's annual report for 1999–2000. I did as I was told, but I found that it was a complete and utter third way-free zone—that term was not mentioned.

That only substantiated what the Library told me on 24th October 2000: Broadly speaking, there has been a decline in the Government's references to the Third Way… over the last two years the Third Way has appeared infrequently in discussions of Government policy". So what does drive the Government? That is what interests so many of us in so many ways. In preparation for this debate, some 18 months after I received the last letter from our ever-excellent Library, I turned to it again. On 21st March, it wrote: There has been very little mention of the Third Way since October 2000". The third way is clearly not just resting, it is dead and buried in some unmarked grave in the Cabinet Office. I should be grateful if the Minister would specifically confirm that in his speech. Will he confirm that the third way is no more?

What has taken the place of the third way? What is now the Government's philosophical lodestone? Naturally enough, I turn to what the Prime Minister has said in another place and outside about his political and philosophical beliefs bang up to date—in 2002. There were no such statements in January.

In February, however, there was an absolute collector's item. On 27th February, one of his own Back-Benchers asked during Prime Minister's Questions: Will he provide the House with a brief characterisation of the political philosophy that he espouses and which underlies his policies?". Before he asked that Question, he gave due notice to the Prime Minister. So that Labour Member of Parliament used much the same words as those of my Motion. I think that your Lordships will find it hard to believe the Answer that the Prime Minister gave to Mr Tony McWalter. He said: The best example I can give is the rebuilding of the national health service today under this Government…For example, there is the appointment today of Sir Magdi Yacoub to head up the fellowship scheme that will allow internationally acclaimed surgeons and consultants from around the world to work in this country".—[Official Report, Commons, 27/2/02; col. 698.] Well, that is all right then. That is the Prime Minister's philosophical creed. No wonder that he was widely reported as having been stumped by that question, the contents of which he had previously been made aware of by Mr McWalter. Heaven only knows how he might have answered had he been caught unprepared. Perhaps Magdi Yacoub might have turned from heart transplants to convictions transplants to help the Government to identify what they stood for.

I am afraid that I must trouble your Lordships with one more offering—this month's offering. On 12th March, the Prime Minister set out his new vision to an audience of somewhat bemused academics at the London School of Economics. Perhaps the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who I am delighted is speaking in the debate, was among their number. That was an occasion for "goodbye the third way", because it was not mentioned at all, and "welcome" something called the third phase. But do not get too excited, hold up the transcript of that speech to the light—and many commentators did exactly that—and it is impossible to discover from close textual analysis exactly what that phrase means.

I pick about the kindest of the comments made in the following day's press. It came in a leader in the Financial Times—all the more remarkable because that newspaper has often been editorially sympathetic to new Labour since 1997. The leader article sat underneath the sub-heading, "Blah, blah Blair". It began: There are few spectacles quite so sad in politics as that of Tony Blair trying to explain what New Labour stands for five years after coming to power". Those are just the kindest of sentiments in the Financial Times and my natural generosity and charitable nature prevent me reading any further—it would be too painful. But no one was any the wiser as to what "the third phase" actually meant.

I must ask the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, a second question. Is the third phase the fourth way of the second term, or what exactly is it? We look to the noble Lord to tell us, although I am sure that he has received input from the 81 special advisers across government and his colleagues in that ever-burgeoning enterprise at the heart of our state, the Cabinet Office.

On all the evidence, it seems that there is a parched ideological desert at the heart of new Labour these days. That conviction-free zone is like one of those areas where medieval cartographers used to inscribe, "Here be dragons", but today could be labelled only, "Here be nothing". At best, new Labour's slogan might be, "Rich in spin, light in substance". Not that slogans are to he decried. Labour now eschews ideas and convictions and substitutes pragmatism. I expect that we shall hear from the Minister, who is a pretty pragmatic person by background, "We just get on with the job. If it works, we do it". I suspect that we shall hear that pleaded in mitigation by the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald.

If so, the Government will get themselves into even greater difficulty. For on the Front Bench is my noble friend Lord Saatchi, who is credited with that masterly slogan coined in the period of old Labour's great unemployment creation in the run-up to the 1979 general election: "Labour isn't working". That is a tiptop phrase. Thanks to the deep-seated Conservative labour market and trades union reforms of the 1980s, which took until the mid-1990s to work through the system, and on which most of our European partners have not even begun, we no longer have such levels of unemployment in this country. But my view is, never throw away a good phrase, never dispose of a decent slogan. The slogan, "Labour isn't working", coined by my noble friend, remains of considerable utility. It is as relevant to new Labour today as it was to old Labour in the 1970s.

I submit that, barren of any underpinning of ideas, empty of political convictions—not personal but political convictions—new Labour fails to deliver because of that emptiness. Neither the social nor the physical infrastructure of the Government is working. Before I finish, I shall give a couple of quick examples. On the social infrastructure, last weekend's poll showed that no longer does the nation think that the National Health Service is working. About two-thirds of respondents thought that, even if the Government produced more money and put it into the health service, Labour could not make the National Health Service work any better. In other words, things can only get worse. The Government have no ideas about how to make the health service work, unlike my right honourable friend Mr Duncan Smith and our health spokesman, Dr Fox.

Exactly the same could be said about law and order. Street crime is a growing national pastime and social disintegration is spreading through some of our inner cities. The same could be said of our countryside, where new Labour is hot on the heels of the life and activities of the rural minority. Labour is bent on destroying the historic ties that have bound the two nations—town and country—together time out of mind in the United Kingdom.

If Labour's social infrastructure is breaking down before our eyes, so is its physical infrastructure. I shall not labour the point on the breakdown of our transport system—I profoundly wish that the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, were in charge of it at the moment—including the failed attempts to get our trains to run on time and reduce crowding on the Tube. It is the same with the built environment. We are seeing the concreting of Britain. Once again, new Labour is simply not working.

It surprises me how it has all crept up on us. The people who seemed, before Christmas, to walk on political water are now in it up to their neck and getting in deeper. Such is the price that a governing party pays for having no convictions, no underlying beliefs and no political philosophy. Instead, new Labour is driven this way and that by every passing wind, in the notable phrase used by my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell to describe the right honourable Neil Kinnock. It is just as apposite today to Her Majesty's Government as it was in those days.

The Government are driven by every new headline. One cannot govern by launching a new initiative to meet a new headline or holding a No. 10 summit to deal with the next crisis. Last weekend, a Labour Back-Bencher was reported as saying that he "felt like a mushroom". He said that he was kept in the dark and did not know what was going on. We are all mushrooms now; we are all completely in the dark about the Labour Party's underpinning philosophy. There is a barren emptiness at the heart of Labour. It has been there for a long time.

The first quarter of 2002 will be the time when one can safely call the top of the market in Blairism in this country. It marks the point at which new Labour, driven by events, not by conviction or thinking, begins its inexorable decline. I beg to move for Papers.

3.42 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for introducing this timely debate. I had the unworthy thought that he had acted with mischievous intent, but I quickly recalled that, when he was a Minister, he rightly saw the need for regular statements and restatements of party policy in the light of changing circumstances. That is to say that he understood the need for principles to be reformulated as the basis for future policy. He contributed to that necessary, continuing dialogue by publishing in 1993 Rolling Constitutional Change both in Citizenship and the wider issue of Constitutional Reform. That was the short title. He has strong credentials for initiating the debate.

I doubt that noble Lords, as earnest seekers after truth, will get far towards discovering what is new Labour's operating philosophy. Two years ago, the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, in a brilliantly satirical piece in Granta, sought to discover the origins, meaning and substance of the widely proclaimed third way. Despite his forensic skills and endeavours, he had to admit total failure. It is unlikely that we will be any more successful today.

I must confess that my views are deeply coloured by the stark fact that so many present Ministers began their political life on the Left and are now to be seen happily ensconced on the Right. It is fashionable to say—doubtless, the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, will say it—that those traditional categories no longer apply in the post-modern world. However, they still have their heuristic uses. The Labour Party, it is true, has often witnessed its more promising members stride boldly up the left-hand staircase, tiptoe across the landing and eagerly slide down the right-hand banisters—all without a blush to their cheeks. It gave rise to that well known tune with words to the effect that, "The working class can genuflect before me, I've got the foreman's job at last". A more appropriate libretto to match those traditional sentiments to the aspirations and achievements of today's Labour tyros would be rendered by substituting "the foreman's job" with "the chief executive's job and corresponding fat cal, emoluments".

It is all part of the revolution of rising expectations, which could not be better exemplified than by the political odyssey of the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, who, I am pleased to see, will reply on behalf of the Government. When I first knew him, he was a feisty Trotskyite activist and an intrepid investigative television reporter. Since then, he has become a television mogul and is now a Minister in the Cabinet Office, ostensibly in the very powerhouse of government. He is thus especially qualified to expatiate on the philosophy behind new Labour, in terms of his personal travels and as an authoritative elucidator of the Government's core beliefs. Your Lordships' House is, thus, doubly privileged today.

I fear for the immortal political souls of those who make such dramatic ideological U-turns. Indeed, I faxed Saint Peter for advice. The celestial Official Secrets Act is, of course, the most robust and transparent of all. I asked the saint what such politicians could say at the pearly gates to explain the total abandonment of their earlier beliefs in favour of naked expediency. He replied, "It is an almost impossible task for them to offer any justification. The normal tariff is 100 million years in Hell. Up here, we are tough on political sin and even tougher on the causes of political sin". I trembled but thought that a confession in today's debate would, perhaps, obtain, by way of mitigation, some remission in the length of the inevitable fate that awaits.

It is clear that there is no overarching organising idea that informs the Government's actions on public policy. From time to time, there are hints of Christian democratic impulses, but even they have waned on the mainland of Europe, where they originated. That is especially so in Italy, now governed by Signor Silvio Berlusconi, the new-found friend of Tony Blair. Then again, Ministers frequently place emphasis on trust and plead that they should be trusted. I am sure that they should be trusted with the stewardship of government, but, when it comes to specific policies, they should seek to gain support for them by the strength of their arguments. Blind trust is not an appropriate tactic in a mature democracy. The Government are too prone to plead for trust, rather than use persuasive argument.

That brings me to one of the central planks of government policy, consideration of which may make it possible to tease out some of the motives behind government thinking. I refer, of course, to the relentless pursuit of public/private partnerships, which the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, has promoted in the House, for example in the part privatisation of National Air Traffic Services.

PPPs are, in too many respects, flawed vehicles. As Select Committees in the other place repeatedly state, they represent poor value for money, and the public pays through the nose. The Tube and the extension of the Eurotunnel link to King's Cross demonstrate that. Secondly, when fat profits are made, they are taken by the private partners; when losses are sustained, they are paid by the taxpayer. Despite the noble Lord's undertaking, that happened most recently in the case of National Air Traffic Services. Thirdly, there is an almost complete lack of transparency and public accountability about PPP schemes. It is of particular concern that, time and again, commercial confidentiality is employed tactically to prevent the details of proposed schemes being scrutinised by local councillors, non-executive directors of hospital trusts, school governing bodies and similar organisations, in whose names the contracts are negotiated and who have responsibility for those contracts.

Fourthly, the initial costs of tendering are astronomic: £27 million of taxpayers' money in the case of the first NHS PPP schemes alone; and equally worrying is the fact that cost estimates tend to be revised upwards after the initial tendering negotiations are closed.

Fifthly, the Treasury performs an ambiguous role. As champion of the whole process, it advises on the tendering process and it is the principal agent in the later value-for-money assessment which it invariably accepts, not surprisingly, as it has earlier advised on the preferred bidder's tender. The whole operation is far too incestuous.

Sixthly, how will contract compliance be effectively monitored over a prolonged period of up to 30 years? What happens if a contractor becomes bankrupt or falls short of its obligations? Such failures would have to be bailed out from public funds.

Seventhly, and most relevantly to this debate, is the ideological stance taken by the Government regarding PPPs. Like Mrs Thatcher before them, they claim, "There is no alternative", in pursuance of which they adamantly refuse to consider any other options for funding public services or infrastructure, which are demonstrably cheaper, such as the issue of bonds, as my noble friend Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay has argued. To dismiss all opposition to PPPs as being ideologically motivated when Ministers assert that there is no alternative to them is itself ideological or, more accurately, the mere incantation of a mantra.

Public/private partnerships aim to get the costs of new projects off the Government's balance sheet. It was that dodgy accountancy practice that was used by Enron. As I said during the passage of the Air Traffic Control Bill, it was based on De Lorean book-keeping. PPP as a device has few supporters outside government. There has been unanimous condemnation in the press and in the reports of Select Committees from another place. There is widespread unease in the Labour Party and outright criticism by the trade unions. Even William Hague conceded that PPPs were not appropriate for London Underground. That was significant, bearing in mind that PPPs, as the private finance initiative, were originally conceived by the Major government. As with so many ideas, new Labour, as Thatcherism Mark II, extended them.

PPPs as the only practical manifestation of the so-called third way, reveal their lack of accountability and their excessive costs, the paucity of real coherent thinking as opposed to accountancy legerdemain in the development of the Government's policies. There is no effective philosophy underpinning this Government's actions.