Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2014.
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Ivan Lewis: "self-indulgent" Milburn and Hutton must remember need for unity

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary says former New Labour ministers "would have been the very people lecturing others". 

There was fury across Labour this week at Alan Milburn's attack on the party's election strategy. Figures from all wings of the party regarded the content ("a pale imitation" of the 1992 campaign) and the timing of his remarks - the launch day of the party's NHS pledge - as unacceptable. One former Blairite minister told me that the former health secretary's behaviour amounted to "treachery". Others pointed to his earnings from private healthcare as evidence of a vested interest in promoting the sector. 

Now, in an interview with the New Statesman, Ivan Lewis has delivered the most prominent criticism from the shadow cabinet. Referring to Milburn and to former defence secretary John Hutton, who co-authored a critical Financial Times article, the Blairite shadow Northern Ireland secretary urged the pair to remember their own lessons on discipline. 

Alan Milburn and John Hutton were two people who delivered very impressive things for Labour in the period that they were in government. But they would have been the very people lecturing others about ill-discipline and self-indulgence at this stage in the political cycle. And that's why their interventions were unacceptable this week. 

He added:

Those interventions, that view of Labour doing things differently, if that's their opinion, fine, they've had three, four years to air those opinions. To do it on the day that Labour published its NHS pledge was inappropriate and regrettable. 

I don't think we should be personal, as some have chosen to be. As I say, these people did make a very big contribution to many of the positive things that Labour did between 1997 and 2010. Alan Milburn, for example, the lowest waiting times in the history of the NHS, we should never forget that. But they, more than anyone, would have talked about the need for discipline and for unity and been critical of those who were self-indulgent, so I hope they'll reflect on the impact of their interventions this week and make sure it doesn't happen again during the course of this campaign. 

"No justification" for keeping DUP out of TV debates

Elsewhere in the interview, Lewis criticised the broadcasters' decision to exclude the DUP from the proposed TV debates. "I can't see any objective justification for that decision," he said. "If you look at the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, Ukip, there's absolutely no justification for keeping Northern Ireland's voice out of these debates, none whatsoever."

Conservative poster of Ed Miliband and Gerry Adams was "gutter politics"

Asked whether Labour could work with the Northern Irish parties in the event of a hung parliament, Lewis said: "We're aiming for a majority, so we're not going to speculate about coalitions."

He went on to attack the "entirely untrue" story that Labour had encouraged Sinn Fein MPs to take their seats after the election, adding that the Conservatives' subsequent poster of Ed Miliband with Gerry Adams was "the kind of gutter politics that I think we need to expect day in, day out, week in, week out in this election. Totally not based on one fact, totally untrue."

"Tory arrogance" over Unionist parties

Lewis also criticised the "arrogance" that led the Conservatives to believe that Northern Ireland's Unionist parties would automatically favour them.

"In terms of working, I work with all of the parties in Northern Ireland, we have a relationship of equal respect with all of them. I think there is an arrogance among the Tories, who believe that Unionists should support them. They don't seem to realise, for instance, that many of the voters of the Democratic Unionist Party are being hammered in terms of Tory social policy. 1930s-level cuts would be awful in the UK generally, but in terms of a society that's emerging from conflict it would have an even worse effect. In a situation, frankly, where if you look at youth unemployment, if you look at long-term unemployment, Northern Ireland is still lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom. 

"So I think the Tory arrogance that assumes that they have this close relationship with the Democratic Unionist Party ... I think we have a good relationship with all the parties and it's important in Northern Ireland that you seek to be an honest broker, you seek to be trusted equally by all the parties and you're not seen to be taking sides."

The full interview with Ivan Lewis will appear next week.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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