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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser