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Andy Burnham interview: “You can’t have a blanket position on HS2”

The shadow health secretary on why he’s prepared to rebel.

Few in Labour feel the constraints of opposition more than Andy Burnham. “I’m a shadow of my former self,” he jokes when we meet at his Commons office, referring to his current post as Labour’s health spokesman (he held the position in government from 2009 to 2010). More hopefully, he cites the vote in favour of banning parents from smoking in cars where there are children and the government’s decision to accept Syrian refugees as evidence of how the party has changed policy from outside power. The next election, he tells me, is “completely winnable”, and he adds: “That’s a pretty great place to be for a one-term opposition.”

Burnham’s ebullient tone changes when we turn to the National Health Service, around which, he warns, a “perfect storm” is still building. “If you look at the data on A&E, something has fundamentally changed in the last 12 to 18 months and that is that the pressure has both ratcheted up and has been sustained over the year, so it’s not diminishing. It’s normally a winter and then back down again.”

One of the main drivers of the A&E crisis has been the 20 per cent cut in social-care funding since 2010, which has turned some hospitals into de facto warehouses for the elderly. The imaginative solution proposed by Burnham is “whole-person care”: the creation of an integrated service with a single budget for physical, mental and social needs. After securing shadow cabinet support for the principle last year, despite the well-known scepticism of Ed Balls, he is now working on the details. There is the promise of an announcement by the time of Labour’s national policy forum in Milton Keynes in July. The question, he says, is: “How far do you go? Do you go for a very ambitious version of it, or an amalgamation of the existing budget?” Burnham does not disguise his preference. “So great is the challenge that’s coming at the health- and social-care system, both in terms of the financial outlook and the demographic pressures, I would argue that you only rise to that with a solution of equal scale. Tinkering at the edges is not going to do it.”

Complementing the establishment of “whole-person care”, his other main pledge is to repeal the coalition’s NHS reforms and halt the privatisation of services. He is troubled by how the proposed EU-US free trade agreement could give permanent legal backing to the new, market-led regime and reveals that he will soon travel to Brussels to lobby the European Commission over the matter. “It means being absolutely explicit that we carry over the designation for health in the Treaty of Rome, so that we can exempt it from competition law,” he tells me. “The market is not the answer to 21st-century health care. The demands of 21st-century care require integration. Markets deliver fragmentation.”

But it is when I ask for his views on an area outside his policy brief, the High Speed 2 rail link (HS2), that Burnham becomes most animated. “It comes right through my constituency [Leigh] and it’s made me look at it in a very hard-headed way,” he says, complaining of an “absolutely massive depot” on what is “currently green space”.

Recently, after Balls threatened to withdraw backing for the project last year, Labour has moved to a more supportive position, with Ed Miliband recruiting the original architect of HS2, Andrew Adonis, to advise him on the issue. But Burnham goes further in his criticism than any other shadow cabinet minister has done. “I’ve given no guarantees about supporting it. I’m not talking as a frontbencher here, I’m talking as the MP for Leigh. I will not let my constituents carry on paying through their taxes for the rail network when they don’t have reasonable access to it. It’s as simple as that. If the government’s going to lay new rail track in my constituency, it can bloody well give us a station.”

Remarkably, Burnham refuses to rule out breaking collective responsibility and voting against HS2 if changes are not made. “If they don’t look again at the depot, I’d have to say to my own whips: ‘Everyone’s constituency is going to be affected differently and everyone’s going to have to account. You can’t have a blanket position because it doesn’t affect everybody equally, does it?’ ” Whether the Labour whips would take such an emollient view is questionable.

More than almost any other shadow cabinet minister, Burnham has the potential to be a transformative secretary of state. Whole-person care is the most fully developed example of the new approach to public-service reform outlined by Ed Miliband in his Hugo Young memorial lecture on 10 February. In an age of austerity, it is also among the most necessary.

As Burnham points out: “People will often say, ‘Oh, integration – it all sounds quite fluffy, quite nice, but are there are any real savings there?’ Monitor are talking about £6bn as the potential gain from integration. That’s got to be taken before anyone asks anybody for anything else.”

Now he just needs to make sure that Leigh gets that railway station.
 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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