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10 August 2013

Andy Burnham: Labour has until next spring to convince voters

The shadow health secretary voices frustration with Ed Miliband, saying: "I will give you an NHS policy that is "one nation" to its core." But will his leader listen to him?

By Helen Lewis

Andy Burnham has given an interview to the Guardian about his frustration over his inability to make Ed Miliband and Ed Balls commit to his proposed reforms to the health and social care systems.

The shadow health secretary says he wants Labour to enter the next election with a promise to provide free care for the elderly, saying: “I’m talking about extending the NHS principle to social care, so everybody’s in, so everybody contributes, but everybody’s then covered for all their needs.” In order to pay for this, he says, the party should be prepared to consider death duties, despite the inevitable cries of “death tax!” from the Tories. 

Burnham also talks about the need for the party to move on to an election footing – something it has appeared slow to do. While Lynton Crosby has been whipping Tory backbenchers into line, and Jim Messina has been enlisted to crunch the data, Labour have yet to replace Tom Watson, who resigned on 4 July. 

Burnham says that the party has only until next spring to make an offer to the electorate. “I think there’s definitely a need to shout louder, and speak in a way that captures how people are feeling and thinking,” he says. “There’s definitely a need to put our cards on the table.”

Although the interview will inevitably be spun as an attack on Miliband in some quarters, it’s more accurate to represent it as an appeal to him. (Albeit it one that will make the story “Labour in trouble” again, rather than giving the party an attack line on the Tories.) Burnham speaks for many in Labour who feel that the party’s leader has had quite enough time on the mountaintop; they would like the tablets of policy stone now, please. You can see a flavour of this in Tom Watson’s resignation letter: “I’m proud of your Buddha-like qualities of patience, deep thought, compassion and resolve.” But now get a move on and do something.

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So what happens now? Labour’s extremely low profile over the summer is likely to be forgotten if the party pulls something truly spectactular out of the bag in the autumn. That means, in particular, there is now even greater pressure for Miliband to impress with his set-piece speech in Brighton.

As my colleague Rafael Behr put it:

Some clarity is promised at the annual conference in September. Some, but not all of the plan for a brighter Labour future will be revealed. (“Watch this space.”) This hiatus is consistent with Miliband’s long-game strategy. His friends talk up his unflappable nature and the way that he is not distracted by the daily froth of 24-hour news, nor by the chatter of impatient commentators on New Statesman blogs.

Burnham’s intervention makes it clear that it’s not only commentators who are getting impatient: some of the shadow Cabinet are too.