Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking and former leader of Islington council, told a nursery education conference in London, organised by the Royal Society of Arts, that it was not good enough to expand provision for children under five by putting them in reception classes.
"I do not want to increase quantity at the expense of quality. Having three and four-year-olds in a reception class with one teacher and an assistant is just cheap child care."
She said Britain needed the political will shown by the wartime coalition government to expand education for the under-5s. Between 1940 and 1943 the number of state nurseries grew from 14 to 1,345, she said. "That is more places than are available today," she said.
Mrs Hodge, who heads a task group set up by Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett, said France spent 10 per cent of its education budget on the early years and Norway invested 11 per cent but Britain spent only 4 per cent.
Labour would consider diverting resources within education to the early years and would look at the cost of the Assisted Places Scheme and grant-maintained schools, she said.