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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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.