Did Labour’s social policies fail or succeed 1997-2010?

It’s impossible to begin telling a story without knowing the ending. So after 13 years in office (1997-2010), it is only now possible to write the story of New Labour’s social policy record – what they aimed to do, what they spent, and what it achieved – and this is just what a team of my colleagues at CASE in LSE have done, led by Ruth Lupton (now at Manchester) and John Hills. I recommend everyone to check out their fantastic summary infographic (see also blogs from the CASE team at LSE Politics & Policy and Polly Toynbee), but over a couple of posts I wanted to pick out the stories that struck me within this gold mine of information.

What Labour did and what they spent

The full list of Labour’s social policies over more than a decade is far too long to list here; more detail is found in the 3 research reports, 6 working papers and 5 research notes that CASE launched simultaneously (!).  [Page numbers refer to the main report unless otherwise specified].  But Ruth Lupton’s summary in her launch presentation gives a good overview:

Labour social policies 1997-2010

It’s easy to miss the wood for the trees here though – Governments are always brimful of initiatives, which can cover up a general lack of any substantive attempts to tackle entrenched social problems.  This is not what happened under Labour.  Spending on health and education as a share of GDP rose substantially (5.3% to 8.3% for health, 4.7% to 6.2% for education; p41) to levels that either match or exceed peaks in the mid-1970s, as shown in the figure below.  (See also the Govt figures on p68 of this).  This is not the case for social security, though, which we return to in the next blog post.

Spending on health education socsec 1970-2010

While this is a significant increase in spending on education and health, we shouldn’t go overboard on this – it hardly makes the UK a beacon of high spending.  Total public spending as a share of GDP rose from 39.5% in 1996/7 to the dazzling high of – wait for it – 40.7% in 2007-8 before the financial crisis (at which point it spiralled to 47.4%, putting us above average).  For education we remained below-average spenders at 10th in the EU15 (i.e. the 15 Western European EU member countries before 2004), and rose from 13th to 8th for health.  It’s only for family policy where the UK seemed to be a leader, moving from 8th to 3rd in the EU15 (p42-3).

It’s clear that Labour matched their rhetorical aims with spending and policy initiatives – but did this have any impact in practice?

What effects did this have?

Put simply, CASE’s conclusion is that this spending made a difference. In their own words, “outcomes improved for the things that Labour was trying to influence: population health and health inequalities, a better and more equal start in life for children, education standards overall and small socio-economic gaps, reductions in child and pensioner poverty and conditions and opportunities in the poorest neighbourhoods” (p48).

There’s a couple of outcomes that I thought were particularly interesting here.  Firstly, Kitty Stewart’s early years paper (Figure 2) shows that the gap narrowed between the 30% most deprived areas and everywhere else in terms of ‘children working securely’ at Foundation Stage (aged 3-5).  She also flags smaller inequalities in low birth weight and infant mortality, while stressing that considerable gaps remain.

Secondly, educational inequality reduced on many measures.  Taking the example of GCSE performance, you can see in the figure below (redrawn from this) that the gap between poorer kids with Free School Meals (FSM) and the rest has gone down.  However, as Ruth Lupton’s paper makes clear, there was little narrowing of the gap if we restrict this to getting 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths.

Educational inequality

(FSM=children claiming Free School Meals, a proxy for poverty)

With such a large list of possible outcomes, there’s a risk of cherry-picking the indicators that show what you want them to show.  There are some areas in which things didn’t improve or even got worse (p50), such as the education indicator I mentioned above, the educational penalty for looked-after children, or as we dwell on next week, overall income inequality didn’t improve.

To give an overall assessment there’s therefore a need to look across a systematic list of indicators, which is what the CASE team do (p47).  They find that under Labour there was progress in 48 of 59 of the Government’s ‘Opportunity for All’ indicators, and 26 of the 50 independent ‘Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion’ list (with only 14 deteriorating). Ruth Lupton’s slides (slides 15-16) from the launch event offer a great summary of this.

A verdict on Labour’s time in office

So spending went up, and while some key indicators didn’t improve, many more things got better than got worse.  Does this mean that the last Labour Government’s social policies were a success?

Well – maybe.  The trouble is that it’s hard enough to evaluate an individual policy; to go beyond this to evaluate an overwhelming list of cross-cutting policy initiatives is nigh-on impossible, as the CASE team make clear (p51-55).  Instead we have to put together a picture of well-evaluated individual policies (e.g. increased paid maternity leave or the now-scrapped Education Maintenance Allowance), modelling of the impacts of changes in taxes and benefits (see next week’s post), and sudden changes in trends that seem likely to be due to the combined influences of different policies (e.g. falling infant mortality in lower socio-economic groups 2008-2010).

Using this varied collection of suggestive evidence, it’s worth repeating the CASE team’s final conclusion in full:

“where Labour spent money, outcomes shifted, while on areas on which no policy effort or extra money was expended, outcomes remained unchanged.  Specific research tended to show that more spending was better than less spending, although there were questions about value for money of certain policies.  Another conclusion is that socio-economic inequalities in outcomes are hard to shift, in the context of persistent high inequality – that there are limits to what social policies can achieve in the absence of economic change” (p61)

Their project will continue by looking at spending and outcomes under the Coalition.  This is important work, and there couldn’t be a better team to do it.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbgeiger.co.uk
This entry was posted in Articles and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Did Labour’s social policies fail or succeed 1997-2010?

  1. David Walker says:

    Hi, Ben, that’s a lucid and useable summary. A couple of points: a) reversibility. As you say, we’ll see what the judgement is on the Cameron coalition but it has already demonstrated how easy it is to reverse/abandon initiatives. This says something (new?) about the volatility of social policy, perhaps also about the need to embed initiatives. Polly Toynbee and I in The Verdict, 2010 several time make the point that rather than embedding its initiatives (in public and political consciousness) Labour buried them in a wall of silence, making no overt case, failing to justify the purposes of the extra spending…
    b) we still lack evidence about the relationship of inputs and outputs. What we know about public service productivity is shakey and subject to ongoing revision. Our far were ‘better’ outcomes in say health and education purchased through extra inputs or changed professional practice. I don’t think we know. What effect, if any, did the Labour years’ rhetoric around ‘reform’ have on the ratio of inputs to outputs?

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Thanks for the comment David, both parts of which I agree with:
      (1) The reversibility of policy is something that I don’t think Labour considered at all (in a personal capacity, it’s one of the things I was most disappointed with Labour about at the time). It’s not just talking about the policies publicly, but in structurally embedding really lasting change – to me captured most by Ruth Kelly’s failure to adopt the Tomlinson review about vocational education.
      (2) The relationship of inputs to outputs is difficult – the CASE review goes into this a bit. In a general sense their overview shows that spending increased and outcomes improved, but what this meant for *productivity* is difficult to say (though their review summarises what evidence exists).

      However, I’m not sure that the language of productivity is necessary here – if more money was spent and outcomes improved, then I think this spending can be publicly justified irrespective of the formal measurement of productivity (or put another way, the impact on productivity is a comparison to previous levels of productivity, rather than whether the spending delivered worthwhile benefits for its costs). That said, there are obviously some things where money was spent and it didn’t achieve much – the CASE summary report mentions a few examples.

      Sorry, this isn’t really a way of answering the second point – it’s got me thinking anyway!

  2. Pingback: Did Labour’s social policies fail or succeed 1997-2010? | Inequalities | this 'n that

Leave a Reply to Ben Baumberg Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.