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". 

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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.