Labour can't escape its Blairite past on the NHS, so it should stop crying "privatisation"

Alan Milburn, the former Health Secretary under Tony Blair, has criticised Ed Miliband's agenda on the health service.

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As Labour centres its election campaign on the NHS, its record on the subject is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Not only are the pressures on the Labour-run Welsh NHS casting doubts upon the party's trustworthiness on health, now its Blairite past is persistently coming back to haunt it.

Alan Milburn, the former Labour MP and Health Secretary under Tony Blair, has called on Ed Miliband to break out of his "comfort zone" on the health service, and to start embracing difficult reforms.

Speaking on the BBC's The World At One, Milburn said:

There is a risk that Labour's position on the National Health Service becomes almost an emblem for Labour showing an unwillingness to lean into a difficult reform agenda.

Look, reforms are not easy, but the Labour party is not a conservative party. It should be about moving things forward, not preserving them in aspic.

I think the biggest risk for Labour on health, and indeed more generally, is that we could look like we're sticking to our comfort zone but aren't prepared to strike out into territory that, in the end, the public know any party of government will have to strike out into, which is to make some difficult changes and difficult choices.

Milburn was the minister who, controversially at the time, introduced NHS foundation trusts, and was behind negotiating PFI deals on hospitals. He serves as one of many reminders that not so long ago, during the New Labour years, the Labour party was driving through dramatic reforms in the NHS and did not shy away from private money in doing so.

Now the party's main attack line – usually delivered with verve via the media machine and self-styled high priest of the English religion that is the NHS, Andy Burnham – is to accuse the Tories of selling it off. But the more they focus on such a negative defence of the health service, the easier it is for their detractors to point out that the market's introduction into the health service flourished during the New Labour years.

Burnham has been forced to acknowledge this many times. Even well before the election campaign was underway, he was having to defend his tenure as Health Secretary. He has admitted in the past that the last Labour government “let the market in too far” into the NHS, although insisted when I interviewed him last year, “that’s not me doing an emotional argument of the left. There is real evidence to say why it’s the wrong answer to 21st-century health challenges . . . the evidence says market systems cost more.

“For me, [privatisation] is the wrong answer. And there’s almost been at times an unspoken consensus between reformers on both sides of politics that the market should just inexorably be allowed to advance. I suppose I’m making a break with that for the first time in a long time.”

But he also admitted to me that there are instances when he can see private money helping the NHS: “Yeah, of course. And it did, didn’t it? The last government worked with the private sector to bring down NHS waiting lists and they came right down. And that’s how I see it. I see a supporting role but not a replacement role.”

With the party's recent record on the NHS, and the lingering appreciation for what the market has to offer the public service, it would serve Labour well to stick to positive politicking on the subject, rather than crying "privatisation".

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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