Andy Burnham on the NHS, school freedom and working with Lib Dems

The new Shadow Health Secretary has spoken exclusively to the New Statesman

For this week's magazine I have interviewed Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham. We know, of course, that he opposes the government's health reforms. But I was intrigued to hear how far he would commit Labour to reversing the plans if they are enacted. The answer, it turns out, is quite far. PCT's he said, would "definitely" be reinstated.

I have been mystified by Labour's stance on public service reform since the election. Indeed, ever since Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair in Number 10 it hasn't been clear whether the party is for or against the use of market mechanisms and competition to drive change. (Ed Miliband, I gather, has not yet finalised his own thinking on this question.) But as far as the NHS is concerned Burnham made it pretty clear that the march of Blairism is halted.

The most efficient healthcare systems in the world are the ones that are planned and managed ... the argument that the market is cheaper just doesn't wash.

It was a long conversation and not all of it made it into the magazine - constraints of space rather than interest. So, for example, Burnham was revealing on the difference between his current job and his last one. He was reshuffled away from the education portfolio last month. Comparing Michael Gove's education reforms and Andrew Lansley's health plans he said:

They're both highly ideological, free market, damaging reforms and they will dismantle in both cases the infrasttructuire and state healthcare and state education. They're designed to do that, they're born of an innate distrust of planned and managed systems. Both reforms are almost identical in that.

But he noted that having shadowed both jobs:

Gove has been cleverer in both the momentum he set and the way in which he created a vision and went for it. Lansley has just created a mess. He's 18 months into the job and people are less about what he is trying to do.

I noted my impression that Labour seemed ready to accept Gove's plans as a fait accompli (they build on Blair reforms, after all). Having signalled that the health plans would be reversed, would he accept that the school reforms would not?

There is a differnece between health and education. A degree of school autonomy is a good thing the identity of the school, its independence - PISA [the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Programme for International School Assessment] backs autonomous schools within a strong system ... You wouldn't want to go completely back to the old days when the local authority replaced every window and all of that stuff ... But you need a strong system. In Education you would have to balance strong independent schools wth reassertion of the local authority role on fairer admissions.

We had a long conversation about public health. Burnham accepted that his party had sometimes crossed the line in terms of meddling in people's lives.

The tendency for Labour is sometimes to go straight to regulation, straight for the sledgehammer. I don't thnk we should do that.

But he sought to draw a distinction between interventions to protect children and the need for a lighter touch where adults are concerned:

And if people say 'nanny state' we'll just say 'Yeah, so what! We are working to give every child the healthiest possible start in life'

Naturally we talked about social care - the main theme in Burnham's campaign for the Labour leadership. He has been invited to cross-party talks on advancing the ideas contained in the Dilnot report on long-term funding. Not surprisingly, Burnham is wary. When he was Health Secretary and Lansley was his shadow equivalent talks collapsed in rancour. The Tories attacked Labour's proposals in a public campaign as a "Death Tax".

The irony of it was unbelievable. I got a letter from Lansley inviting me to take part in cross-pary talks on social care about a week into this job. Bear in mind, he initiated the talks last time, so it was about as alluring as an invitation from Liam Fox to talk about defence procurement with his friened Mr Werrity.

Burnham says he is prepared to participate but as long as certain conditions are met. They include confidentiality, guarantees on funding and access to the Department of Health Secretariat for figures and demographic modelling.

Given that Burnham has this week launched what he calls "the last push" to kill off Lansley's NHS reforms, I'd be surprised if collegiate negotiations on social care got under way any time soon.

As a parting shot I asked him he could imagine ever working with Liberal Democrats - given that they too have opposed aspects of Lansley's reform. He belittled their contribution. ("The Liberal Democrats haven't done anything to the Health Bill.") And could he ever imagine serving in a coalition with Lib Dems?

"People like Norman Lamb, I've got lots of common ground with. I'd work with people like that."

And Nick Clegg?

"Clegg's basically a Tory. It's like asking me if I could serve in a cabinet with Tories. I find it hard to imagine."

Read the rest in the magazine.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit