Leader: The postman’s delivery

Alan Johnson's self-deprecating wit belies a sharp mind.

In the days when he was touted as a successor to Gordon Brown, Alan Johnson was regarded as the Labour politician the Tories feared most. Ed Miliband's decision to name Mr Johnson as his shadow chancellor offers him a chance to prove why. Mr Johnson, as he himself concedes, is no economist, but his self-deprecating wit belies a sharp mind and a keen intelligence, and he has an undoubted ability to master a brief. At a time of falling social mobility, the ascent of the former postman, who was orphaned at the age of 12 and left school at 15, is an inspiring success story.

Perhaps most significantly, by appointing Mr Johnson, Mr Miliband has signalled that, unlike Tony Blair, he is unwilling to subcontract economic policy to his shadow chancellor. That is right. Mr Miliband, who taught economics at Harvard during his sabbatical in 2004 and chaired the Treasury's Council of Economic Advisers, will lead Labour's response to the spending review. In attempting to restore the party's economic credibility after the hubris of Mr Brown, he has a worthy ally in Mr Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.