Tom Richmond: Today’s Labour party has failed to learn vital lesson

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HOW times change. When Tony Blair became Labour leader two decades ago, he sought to reach out to Middle England in order to broaden his party’s support base. His aspiration agenda – underpinned by his mantra of “education, education, education” – had wide resonance.

Contrast this with the unremitting gloom from Labour’s party conference and the lack of ambition on the part of Ed Miliband. Perhaps the most depressing aspect was the party’s emptiness on education policy and welfare reform. One follows the other – Britain’s benefits bill will only come down in the future with a skilled and talented workforce. After presiding over a record increase in youth unemployment, Labour has been assiduous in championing the importance of apprenticeships and wants to create 100,000 “super-apprenticeships”.

Yet, despite this, the speech by Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves – the Leeds West MP – amounted to a derisory 1,127 words and revolved around the abolition of the so-called bedroom tax.

Even more perfunctory was Tristram Hunt’s speech – the former television historian offered just 828 words.

Furthermore, there was not one direct mention of primary schools – an omission that shows the extent to which Labour has distanced itself from the past.

It is even more shocking in the wake of a Policy Exchange report which claims that one in five of such schools – 3,000 in total – will fail to meet the Government’s new literacy and numeracy targets by 2020 unless action is taken.

Unless youngsters embrace the basics – and that means being encouraged to learn and explore their horizons by their parents – they will struggle to make the grade at school and in later life.

It could not be more basic. Tony Blair understood it.. Yet why have his successors failed to learn such a fundamental lesson? For, until they do, social inequality will remain rife and a major drain on the public purse.

CREDIT where credit is due. John Prescott was probably ahead of his time 10 years ago when he campaigned unsuccessfully for the introduction of regional assemblies to counter the advent of the Scottish Parliament.

He identified the issue – England’s democratic deficit – and the then Hull East MP and Deputy Prime Minister came up with a solution. The problem was the execution, the third element of the problem-solving approach undertaken by most successful entrepreneurs.

Prescott did not have the total support of Tony Blair who was, frankly, ambivalent; the proposed assemblies were little more than “talking shops” with inadequate powers and they would have created another costly tier of bureaucracy.

Moving forward, I do believe that there is still some merit to the Prescott plan if it can be proven to work. Why? I’m deeply uncomfortable with the Government devolving major new powers – and money – to unproven quangos and Whitehall-backed bodies that are accountable to no one but themselves.

The lack of scrutiny explains, in part, why the regional development agency Yorkshire Forward squandered vast sums of money on a regular basis – not least on the infamous Digital Region project in South Yorkshire – and why Lurene Joseph remains chief executive of marketing agency Leeds and Partners in spite of her expenses claims.

Moving forward, no plan will be complete unless Yorkshire’s quangocracy is truly answerable to the most important people of all – the voters and taxpayers of this county. On this, I agree with John Prescott. Accountability must always be a price worth paying.

PUT down of the week at the Labour conference came when the party’s scaremongerer-in-chief Andy Burnham, the health chief who still refuses to resign over the Mid Staffs scandal, arrogantly told the BBC’s Andrew Neil: “I know you are paid to pick holes in policy.”

Neil’s response? “I am paid to get answers.” The smile, I am pleased to report, was briefly wiped from the face of the most arrogant man in politics.

TWENTY four hours after forgetting to mention the deficit or immigration in his conference speech, wobbly Ed Miliband’s memory failed him again.

“Yorkshire needs a fairer deal,” said the Doncaster North MP, before it was pointed out to him that he had signed up to an extension to the Barnett Formula that so favours Scotland over England when it comes to public funds.

I was also appalled that Miliband did various conference interviews from a NHS hospital. I hope Labour paid a commercial rate for use of the ward concerned for blatant electioneering.

FORMER Royal press officer Dickie Arbiter – Sir Bernard Ingham’s counterpart at Buck Palace – reveals in his memoirs how he started doing the washing up following a picnic with the Royal family at Balmoral.

“I’ll wash, you dry,” Arbiter told the Queen when Her Majesty joined him in the kitchen of a wooden lodge on the Scottish estate. “No. I’ll wash, you dry,” she replied quietly but firmly.

It is reassuring to know that Her Majesty remains the most grounded person, even more so when relaxing with guests or pursuing her passion for horse racing. It explains why her reign continues to be such a glorious one.