The top 10 progressive policies of the noughties

Left Foot Forward has enjoyed the spate of lists over the Christmas period celebrating the “noughties” decade but there has been an omission: no-one has yet set out the 10 most progressive policies of the decade (and the most regressive). We offer here our selection for discussion.

Our criteria was that policies should have been proposed (or implemented in Labour’s case) by a domestic political party and must have come into force or been proposed in the last decade. For this reason we have excluded the National Minimum Wage and the Human Rights Act. In choosing our ordering we have given added kudos to particularly radical policies or those that have impacted a large group of people.

We welcome your comments on the good and the bad. Later this week we’ll be publishing the ten policies we want to see implemented in this new decade.

The most progressive policies of the decade

1. Reducing child poverty

Although the 2005 target to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent was missed and the interim target to halve child poverty by 2010 will not be reached without additional cash, the announcement (which actually took place in 1999) has had a profound impact on the last decade.

Over half a million children have been lifted out of poverty and the target has provided an incentive for a number of policies that have helped lift other groups out of poverty. These include tax credits, increases in the minimum wage, and a focus on increasing labour market participation. Without the target, inequality – which rose so rapidly in the 1980s – could have continued to rise at a similar rate. The Conservative party’s commitment to the target speaks volumes of how the centre-ground of British politics has shifted. And the Child Poverty Bill will enshrine in law the commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

For these reasons, the child poverty target is Left Foot Forward’s most progressive policy of the decade.

2. Investment

There has been an unprecedented investment over the last decade in public buildings which have transformed the lives of students and patients, teachers and hospital workers, as well as many recipients of public services and front line employees. In addition, the rail network and London Underground have been dramatically improved.

Equally important, the Government published its ten-year science and innovation investment plan in 2004. From total science expenditure of £4.2 billion in 2004–05, the science base was set to rise to £6.3 billion in 2010–11. The results have been impressive with a considerable rise in the number of spin out companies, the strengthening of clusters around the big research universities, and greater success in commercialising research. It’s a great pity, therefore, that December’s pre-Budget report cut £600 million “from higher education and science and research budgets” in what the New Scientist blog called a “dark day for British science.”

3. Recapitalisation of the banks

On October 8, 2008, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling set out a radical £500 billion programme to, according to The Times, “restore confidence in the UK banking sector and break the crippling logjam in credit markets.” The package included £50bn to recapitalise banks, £250bn to underwrite debt, and a £200bn injection into the money markets.

It prompted Paul Krugman to ask “Has Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, saved the world financial system?” The policy was adopted by a number of other countries and the communique of the G20 Summit in Washington noted the action taken by member countries to “strengthen the capital of financial institutions.”

4. UK leadership on international development

Over the past decade there has been a major reframing in the purpose and delivery of aid by the UK with the Department for International Development now generally regarded as one of the best development agencies in the world. Chief among these reforms has been a new focus on poverty reduction as the purpose of aid; and the country-led approach, which focuses on making recipient countries systems and policies work (rather than the old Structural Adjustment Programmes).

Meanwhile, all major parties are commited to raising development resources to 0.7% of GNI by 2013. The UK leadership at the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles led other countries to increase their aid commitments (although there has since been some backsliding).

5. Sure Start

Although Sure Start was first introduced in 1998, it has continued to expand throughout the decade. The programme has opened up a new front of the welfare state and acted on the wealth of evidence showing that life chances are largely dictated by a child’s experience in their early years.

The National Evaluation Report of Sure Start carried out by Birckbeck in March 2008 found that Sure Start Local Programme (SSLP) areas “revealed a variety of beneficial effects for children and families living in SSLP areas, when children were 3 years old. There were positive effects associated with SSLPs with respect to 7 of the 14 outcomes assessed.”

There are, of course, critics and problems with the scheme, and some right-wing think tanks have advocated their abolition, but if Britain wants Scandinavian style equal life chances for our children, we need Scandinavian style institutions too. And that means more money and focus to early years, not less.

6. EU renewables

An EU directive to generate 20 per cent of Europe’s energy from renewable sources by 2020 was passed in April 2009. This will reduce dependence on fossil fuels, create millions of jobs in new industries, slash emissions, and in the long run bring down fuel bills too.

In 2005, the UK had among the worst share of energy from renewable sources at just 1.3 per cent. But the new target commits the UK to reaching 15 per cent. Although there are credibility issues with the delivery of the ambitious climate budgets in the Climate Change Act, the EU Directive is an important incentive.

7. Freedom of Information Act

The Act came into force in January 2005 and affects over 100,000 public bodies including government departments, schools and councils. Wikipedia reports that around 120,000 requests are made each year with private citizens making 60 per cent of them and businesses and journalists accounting for 20 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.

Although the range of exemptions has come under continued criticism, the Act is responsible for lifting the lid on the misuse of MPs’ expenses, and provoking the largest parliamentary crisis in living memory.

8. Quality of life

In September 2007, the Quality of Life Policy Group – chaired by John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith – published its final report. It included a number of radical green proposals including making Britain the “world number one for energy efficiency” and a “zero waste economy.” But most radical of all it called for “a proper framework for policy making that encourages policy makers and political discussion to focus on general well-being, not just on GDP.”

Since the report was published, France has stolen a march on Britain with Nicolas Sarkozy commissioning Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz to write a report on “the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress”. Sarkozy has described GDP as an “obsolete way of measuring well-being.”

9. Civil partnerships

Civil partnerships, which came into force in 2005 have given same-sex couples rights and responsibilities identical to civil marriage. Although the number of civil partnerships have slowed since the initial burst in 2006, over 34,000 couples had taken up the rights by the end of 2008.

The policy indicated how a public campaign and a progressive government could work together to bring about major change. The legislation was part of a wider drive for gay equality, including adoption rights, outlawing discrimination in the provision of the goods and services, and tackling hate crimes. The recent increase in homophobic attacks clearly underscore that the push for equality is incomplete but it is a lot stronger due to civil partnerships.

10. Free access to museums

Universal free access to 20 museum groups was adopted in December 2001. It has a resulted in an increase in visits of 124%. Last year (2008-09) was the seventh and most successful year of the free admission policy, with over almost 9 million extra visits to former charging museums.

In 2007, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport announced that the policy would be extended until at least 2011. But the impending spending crunch could result in a sad end to the policy.

Most regressive policies of the decade

1. Iraq

Even putting aside the contentious arguments about the legality of the war and the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, the policy is, in the view of Left Foot Forward, the worst of the decade. The lack of planning including not providing enough troops to maintain order and the disastrous decisions of Paul Bremmer (the de-ba’athification and disbanding of all of Iraq’s military entities cited in Charles Ferguson’s film “No End in Sight“) left the country in chaos for years. The result has been thousands more deaths than during the war itself; huge costs for the US, Britain and their allies; and a resurgent Iran.

2. Lack of regulation

In his new year message, Gordon Brown described the recession as “a crisis that originated in the US housing market and then came rolling across the Atlantic towards us.” But this ignores the triple whammy of spiralling domestic consumer debt, a British housing bubble, and huge increases in “casino capitalism” in the City. Brown should have done more as Chancellor to address these imbalances. The Conservative party were equally irresponsible in consistently calling for lighter regulation and even employed John Redwood as the Deregulation Secretary in 2004-05. Even Vince Cable is guilty. In 1999 he endorsed “the liberal market” approach to the regulation of financial services and said that any regulation should be “done on a light-touch basis”.

3. 10p tax

In the 2007 Budget, Gordon Brown as Chancellor announced that the top rate of income tax would be cut from 22p to 20p. To pay for it, he announced plans to abolish the 10p tax rate on the first £2,230 of earnings, meaning everyone would pay a 20 per cent rate after the first £5,435.

Analysis by Channel 4 Fact Check showed that anyone with salaries between £8,000 and £16,000 would be worse off. In May 2008, Gordon Brown (now Prime Minister) paid £2.7 billion to mitigate the effects.

4. Increasing detention without charge

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in July 2005, Tony Blair said, “When they try to intimidate us, we will not be intimidated. When they seek to change our country or our way of life by these methods, we will not be changed.” Just months later his Government proposed extending the period that terror suspects could be locked up without charge from 14 days to 90 days. They were defeated by 291-322 with 49 Labour MPs rebelling. Instead, the detention period was doubled to 28 days.

In 2008, Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith again sought to increase the detention period, this time to 42 days. Gordon Brown described the proposal as “the right way to protect national security.” But the plans were dropped as “unworkable” after it became clear that it would not pass the House of Lords.

5. Inheritance tax

In October 2007 it was regarded as a master stroke as George Osborne announced that he would raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1,000,000, effectively providing a £1.5 billion tax break for the 3,000 largest estates. It led indirectly to the cancellation of an early general election and scared Alistair Darling into announcing a watered down version of the policy.

Thankfully, the Chancellor used the pre-Budget report to backtrack on the policy but it remains a Conservative party commitment and has been described by Andrew Rawnsley as an “albatross around their necks“.

We are grateful to Left Foot Forward’s contributers and friends for their suggestions including Trevor Cheeseman, Karin Christiansen, James Crabtree, Joss Garman, Sunny Hundal, Joy Johnson, Martin McCluskey, Alison McGovern, Rick Muir, Andrew Pakes, Howard Reed, Marcus Roberts, Mark Thompson, and Owen Tudor for sharing their suggestions.

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21 Responses to “The top 10 progressive policies of the noughties”

  1. Thomas Byrne

    It’s a bit odd to describe bailing instiutions as ‘progressive’, and I don’t think that the ending of Child Poverty has much to do with Governments.

  2. Mark

    “Over half a million children have been lifted out of poverty”. You can lift someone out of poverty merely by boosting their household income by a tenner a week but does this transform their life? I’d argue not. Instead huge government efforts have gone into dragging household income across some arbitrary statistical line, often the target has become the end and not the means to something better for many officials.

    On the achievements, I’d add one big difference is that Britain has become a far more tolerant and egalitarian place which touches on 9. but I think it goes far wider than the points you mention.

    But recapitalising the banks *in full* was a very bad move. Money was showered on the banks with little in return, that’s not good enough. It was right to protect savers but professional investors have received a full bailout too. Privatised profits and nationalised losses aren’t progressive. The over-generous scheme just transfers bank debt onto the taxpayer and means we’re all liable for banking risk but don’t enjoy banking rewards. I’d argue this asymmetry is a real policy blunder instead an achievement.

    Remember “saving” the banks is a bit like shooting yourself in the foot and then trying to claim credit for dialling 999. Only in Britain was the payments system hours from collapse, only in Britain did half the banking system have to be rescued. It was a policy humiliation to be forced to save so many banks rather than a progressive achievement.

    In all many of the “achievements” haven’t really been achieved, they might prove to be ephemeral. As mentioned above in 2., the universities budget is being cut and many good scientists are being made redundant. It’s not an achievement to get good results for a few years, only to cancel them once the money runs out. Progressive politics is all about the long term, any fool can spend tax revenues during a bubble but it’s how the framework survives a bust that determines sustainable achievements.

    All in all some interesting ideas and like any list, it can generate debate.

  3. AndrewSparrow

    RT @leftfootfwd: What are the most progressive (and regressive) policies of the noughties? We've set out our choices –

  4. Will Straw

    Reducing child poverty is the most progressive policy of the 2000s; Iraq the most regressive. See the @leftfootfwd list

  5. Gordon

    The Housing Bill(Scotland) 2001 and the commitment contained within it to give everyone in Scotland the right to a home by 2012 has to be up there as one of the most progressive policies of the decade. Pushed through by the Labour led Scottish Executive it is a more fitting legacy for the first ten years of devolution than many of the more commonly cited policies.

    I have never understood why there hasn’t been a significant push for similar rights in England.

  6. Joy Johnson

    Perhaps because I am hurtling towards my Freedom Pass or because a
    possible Tory government is in the offing I fear for its survival, but
    I would nominate the extension of free travel to people over 60 as a
    progressive policy that should rank high in any list.

    Remember the times when old people with their bus passes were sneered
    at for being ‘twirlies’. Too early to use their pass before 9.30; the
    humiliation and the frustration that must have been felt to be told to
    get back to the back of the queue. The sheer contempt that this
    widespread term of snide abuse showed is now thankfully a thing of the

    Up against the minimum wage, Sure Start and no doubt a raft of other
    social reforms the extension of free travel to over sixties across
    England on buses and, in London on the tube and the over-ground as
    well, is an unmitigated good thing. Not only liberating, it is
    economically and socially progressive. In London it adds over a
    thousand pounds a year to older people’s income and probably saves
    money as independence is maintained along with physical and mental
    well being.

    With pensions regularly under attack – it is now a common place to
    call for a freeze on state pensions and cuts in pensions –

    Its universality – men and women over sixty even those at work receive
    it – is used as a reason for means testing. Once this happens the rot
    will set in and gradually it will begin to erode. Instead we should
    cherish and recognise the progressive nature of the freedom pass.

  7. ANIN

    Most regressive policies of the decade

    Just off the top…..

    Rightwing Tory David Freuds Nu Labour Welfare Reform Bill
    Continuing right wing Labour assault on the sick and most vunerable

    Labours Trident Upgrade and Then Trident Replacement
    More and better Labour Nuclear Weapons to shoot at ,,,,?

    Labours Privatisation policies across the public sector including NHS and Roysal Mail.NHS Logistics, Qinetiq etc. More Privatisation than Thatcher

    A Labour Cabinet stuffed to the gunnells with unelected Lords and Dames

    Labours increasing privatisation of NHS service4s and destruction of a public NHS by Foundation Trusts

    Labours destruction of Comprehensive Schools and introduction of Academies run by wealthyy creationists

    Labours abandonement of Social Housing and attacks on Council Housing

    Labours University Tuition Fees and Student loans

    Labours Foreign Policies, including the bloodbath in Iraq and the Afghan Pakistan quagmire

    Labours destruction of the World renown Henderson Hospital

    Labours support for Anti Trade Union Laws

  8. John Eastwood

    You say that thanks to FOIA
    “Although the range of exemptions has come under continued criticism, the Act is responsible for lifting the lid on the misuse of MPs’ expenses, and provoking the largest parliamentary crisis in living memory.”

    With all respect, this isn’t true. Data was leaked from the Commons to the Telegraph. The FOIA had nothing whatsoever to do with that – indeed, the eventual “offical” FOIA data released had all the addresses redacted which hid the capital gains flipping, amongst other things. If the FOIA data had been released first, that would never had come out.

  9. John Greenaway

    Interesting summary of left(ish) / progressive polices of the 2000s (link via @gethynwilliams)

  10. Tom Miller

    Good post. Shame there’s no mention in there for the Human Rights Act, one of New Labour’s best achievements, if not necessarily the most popular on the right.

  11. Fony Blair

    Genuinely intersted to find out where the stat re: 3,000 largest estates comes from on the Inheritence Tax policy. Surely it reduces tax liability for many more people than 3,000 estates as the original threshold was around £325,000. Virtually every 3 bed house in London/South East is worth this much.

    This 3,000 number is a line often trotted out by Labour ministers. Where does the 3,000 come from?


    Fony Blair

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  13. Thomas Byrne


    * Bank of England independence
    * Unashamed reform of public services (in England)
    * Peace in Northern Ireland (although, of course, that was not solely the Labour Government by any manner of means)
    * Pushing the Lisbon Treaty through
    * Human rights: the HRA and associated measures (usually required by ECtHR judgments: lowering the age of consent for gay men, introducing civil partnerships, transgender recognition


    * National Minimum Wage
    * Smoking ban and associated anti-smoking measures
    * Devolution in Scotland and Wales (although it was fairly inevitable)
    * Anti-terror legislation.
    * The hunting ban (not just for what it was, but for what it symbolised)

  14. Thomas Byrne

    Oh dear, some were before 2000, silly me. :3

  15. Morus

    Hmmm – intersting lists, but I’d offer slightly different acts: I’m less interested by whether I agree with a policy or not (Iraq, tuition fees) than whether something worked well. From a managerialist perspective, I’d say:

    1) Freedom of Information Act (would never be passed nowadays, by any political party with hopes of government)
    2) Gay rights legislation (done reasonably for the most part, with little fuss, and has reshaped attitudes)
    3) Independence of the Bank of England (not perfect regulatory system clearly, but Bank Independence was good)
    4) Northern Irish solution (though shared credit with the Major Government)
    5) Minimum Wage (not sure in theory, but in practice I think this has worked out well)

    1) Lisbon Treaty (irrespective of EUphile/skeptic, the undemocratic nature of the passage was embarrassing)
    2) Smoking ban and Licensing Reform (a complete dog’s breakfast)
    3) Constitutional Reform (exc reduction of hereditory peers) – Supreme Court, Welsh/Scottish devolution etc
    4) Anti-terror legislation (especially the Regulatory Powers Act and Civil Contingencies Act) and 42 Days
    5) 10p tax and associated changes to VAT and capital gains.

  16. Morus

    Just saw the decade thing. Sorry.

  17. tim finch Head of Migration ippr

    It is worth adding under ‘detention without trial’ that this also happens to asylum seekers (including children) A completely inhumane, expensive and ineffective policy. Labour inherited a huge problem with asylum which it was always going to struggle to deal with – but generally its record in this area has been pretty shameful. Ending the detention of childen would be a good start for the next decade – and is something Labour could easily do straightaway.

  18. Martin C

    “The Freedom of Information Act … is responsible for lifting the lid on the misuse of MPs expenses” says you.
    No it wasnt.
    It was a disillusioned civil-servant leaking the details to the Telegraph, after the FoI order had been blocked by those very MPs.
    Nevertheless, the FoI act is a Good Thing generally. It just doesnt go far enough.

  19. John77

    Joy Johnson is talking through her hat: I have a free bus pass and a Senior Railcard, but that doesn’t stop me taking the 7.43 train when I need to do so – I just pay the full fare. I have never been humiliated when using my railcard or bus pass: the gentleman at my ticket office (who looks older than I) is always professional and helpful, as is the mature lady (who doesn’t) but was mildly amused when I purchased my first railcard (and has looked mildly amused on a few occasions since – so what!)
    Nobody is/was told “to go to the back of the queue” – or certainly nobody SHOULD have been told to do so – merely if you want to travel in rush hour you have to pay full fare. It is silly to travel in rush hour if you do not utterly need to do so and it makes life more difficult for other commuters who do not have the choice. The original, sound, idea behind the offpeak free travel was that the marginal cost of pensioners travelling off-peak was negligible and it would be recouped by the saving from reducing congestion in the rush-hour as a result of a minority of pensioners choosing to alter travel times to take advantage of free travel.
    Those who are concerned about Global Warming should support a move to making off-peak, but NOT rush-hour, travel on public transport free/very cheap for pensioners. Pensioners travelling free in rush-hour add to the number of buses/trains belching out diesel fumes/using coal-fired electricity, but if they travel off-peak they just sit in empty seats with zero carbon footprint.
    The introduction of free rush-hour travel by public transport for over-60s has made life worse for ordinary commuters and I denounce it as a Regressive measure that hurts the poor while making no difference (or, in some cases reducing traffic congestion) for the rich travelling by car or taxi.

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