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Driving a Decade of Reform - Lunch with Alan Milburn, 6 September 2007

On Thursday 6 September, Per Capita hosted the Rt Hon Alan Milburn MP, former UK Secretary of State for Health and Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Alan spent nearly a decade at the heart of the Blair government, pioneering Private Finance Initiatives, modernising the National Health Service and co-ordinating Labour’s successful 2005 election campaign.

Alan discussed the challenges of delivering progressive policy reform – reflecting back on the lessons of New Labour, and looking to the future of progressive reform in Australia and around the world.

Alan began by reminding us that the last great wave of progressive reform actually originated in Australia in the 1980s with breakthrough policies like HECS and personal superannuation. In Britain, New Labour adopted a similar reform agenda, fusing public service delivery with market mechanisms to offer citizens better information and greater choice. While the Blair government made strides in this area, Alan observed that the demand for superior information and customised services will only continue to grow, with a recent poll showing that 5 out of 10 Americans consulted the Internet before seeing their doctor while 8 out of 10 did so after a doctor’s visit.

However, while refinements can still be made, this phase of reform is effectively over - the core arguments have been won. Instead, Alan argued that a new agenda for progressive politics is required. He described the challenge for progressives as one of re-engagement with citizens. It is a truism that voters, and young people in particular, have lost interest in politics, but Alan rejected this notion.

Opinion polls and social attitude surveys show that people still care deeply about political issues, but feel locked out of traditional political processes. Alan noted that he enjoys greater engagement (and less deference!) from sixth formers in his constituency than from the Opposition backbenches. So the next wave of progressive policy must re-engage citizens by re-empowering them. Pushing control of service delivery and investment decisions back to citizens and away from bureaucracy is one method. Smarter use of technology is another.

In embarking on a new wave of policy reform, progressive politicians must think hard about their audiences. Too often, Alan argued, they have addressed internal party audiences rather than broadening their message to appeal to the wider electorate. Above all, the next wave of reform must incorporate the enduring progressive values of prosperity with social justice. For Alan, these were instilled in childhood on a council estate in north-east England and have remained at the heart of his political convictions ever since.