Andy Burnham comes out fighting against Conservative smears

The Tories' attempts to pin the blame for NHS failings on the former health secretary are both politically unwise and unmerited by the facts.

The Conservative spin machine has gone into overdrive ahead of the publication of the Keogh report into failings at 14 NHS trusts in a desperate attempt to pin the blame on the last Labour government. In an abandonment of the consensual approach adopted by David Cameron after the Francis report into Mid-Staffs, when he declared that the government would not "blame the last Secretary of State for Health" or "seek scapegoats", the Tories have taken aim at shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, the man responsible for the NHS from 2009-10, briefing the press over the weekend that his position is now untenable.

In an letter published in today's Telegraph, 10 Conservative MPs, undoubtedly with the tacit encouragement of Downing Street, openly call for his resignation. They write:

It is clear now that the last Labour government oversaw thousands of unnecessary deaths in our NHS Hospitals and failed to expose or confront these care scandals. The patients we represent were betrayed. It would be an outrage if Andy Burnham were ever to return to the role of secretary of state for health.

In response to this declaration of political war, Burnham has come out fighting. Writing in the Telegraph, he points out several inconvenient truths that will almost certainly be lost in the media's coverage of the report today. 

Far from seeking to 'bury bad news', as the Conservatives allege, Burnham notes that "before the last Election, I took action in respect of Basildon and Tameside and after ordering an in-depth review of all hospitals in England, I left in place warnings over five of the 14". In doing so, as less partisan papers reported at the weekend, he overruled health officials determined to keep the failings from the front pages. 

Burnham goes on to point out that the criteria for inclusion in the Keogh report "was hospitals with a high mortality ratio in 2011 and 2012 – not 2005" (after Labour had left office, in other words) and that "six of the 14 now have a higher mortality rate than in the last year of the last Government."

In addition, he notes that there has been "a major deterioration" in A&E waiting times at the hospitals in question, with all 14 in breach of the government’s 4-hour A&E target, and "severe cuts to staffing levels", identified by the Francis report as one of the main causes of the Stafford scandal. 

With the Tories trailing Labour by 30 points on the NHS, their desire to hold the last government responsible for any failings, as they done so successfully in the case of the economy, is understandable. But not only is it one they would be wise to resist, as Rachel Sylvester argues in today's Times (the public would rather politicians spent their fixing the problems with the NHS than arguing over which party is to blame), this line of attack is also entirely unmerited by the facts. If Burnham can derive any consolation from the events of the last 48 hours, it is that this smear campaign will almost certainly backfire. 

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, who served as health secretary from 2009-10. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage