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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.