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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