“I am a unity candidate”: The Andy Burnham interview

Andy BurnhamAndy Burnham is the shadow health secretary and a candidate in the Labour leadership election. He met Alex Smith in his office on Tuesday, 13th July, 2010.

Let’s start with the Tories’ “radical” pro-market plans for the NHS, which will allow private companies to expand their role and influence in healthcare and which will also mean, we expect, that tens of thousands of management-level jobs will be lost. You said you were so upset by these plans you could weep. Which aspects of the reforms concern you especially?
It’s the dismantling of the NHS. There’s a line in the White Paper which talks about there being no headquarters of the NHS anymore in the Department for Health, and no headquarters in the NHS Commissioning Board. Instead, the headquarters of the NHS would be every clinic and every operating theatre in the country. So, essentially, there’s just no National Health Service; there’s no N in NHS anymore. Instead, it’s an unregulated free-for-all in which there are no national standards. Targets were much-maligned but I would defend them resolutely, because the national standards they set were a guarantee for every patient. So the 18-week guarantee was something that every patient had as an insurance policy. Take that away and the NHS becomes a postcode lottery writ large. So these Tory plans are the dismantling of all of the structures of the NHS.

So would you agree that these changes signal the not just the decentralisation, but the denationalisation of healthcare services in England?
That’s a good way of putting it. It would mean a huge loss of public accountability. Just on the simplest level, who would an MP write to under these plans if he or she was dissatisfied with the level of service offered to a constituent? There’s no PCT, so what happens? Where is the public accountability? It’s the wholesale transfer of accountability to General Practice. I’ve said many times that the strength of the British healthcare system is General Practice, but GPs are there to treat patients, not handle multi-million pound budgets. So it’s all very, very worrying. Over thirteen years of the Labour government there were blood, sweat and tears to get those waiting lists down. It was hard work. It took the application of many minds and real drive and determination over a long period of time. People said 18-weeks just couldn’t be achieved – but we did it, and the NHS staff rose to the challenge. To wipe all that away at a stroke and allow waiting lists to rise again is just profoundly depressing.

But Andrew Lansley says these reforms are “inevitable”, that there is – as the Tory line says – “no alternative” to massive cuts. Part of why this is possible is that the Tories have won the argument that reducing the deficit now and sharply is necessary to stimulate the economy. That’s Labour’s failure, isn’t it – we’ve lost the argument, not just on the NHS but on the economy and the deficit more widely?
No, because this is an ideological reform, not a reform driven by finance. There has never been a reorganisation of the NHS that didn’t cost money while the reorgansation was being carried out. In fact, at this point in time, the last thing the NHS needs is a top-down reorganisation. It needs stability so we can rise to the financial challenge. Labour did succeed in winning the argument on the NHS. The Tories had to fundamentally change their position pre-election, because we’d shown that investment and reform can give Britain a good NHS in most cases, and in some instances a world class NHS. That assessment is backed up by the independent Commonwealth Fund, which recently ranked the NHS second overall in the world, and top on efficiency – top on efficiency. That’s an incredible endorsement of Labour’s NHS. So the argument that this is all “inevitable” because of a financial imperative is utter nonsense.

What are you going to do, as shadow health secretary and a Labour leadership candidate, to campaign against these Tory plans? How are you going to oppose them, and what alternatives are Labour as an opposition going to present?
I would go back to the five-year plan that I delivered towards the end of last year – The NHS: From Good to Great – which was a plan for 2010 to 2015. You can hear echoes of some of that plan in the Tory White Paper, around personal budgets, the scrapping of GP boundaries, a whole range of reforms around the integration of health and social care, the move of services out of hospital into home. But that’s where it ends, because the Tories have been driven by a series of ideological positions, or political positions. This moratorium on hospital reconfiguration is the last thing the NHS needs right now. The NHS needs to be able to sensibly get on and move services out of hospitals because they’re very costly in hospital settings. And yet the Tory moratorium prevents that kind of sensible change and instead pursues an ideologically-driven reorganisation. That’s the really important point – the sensible change that the NHS needs is organisational stability, so it can make the service reform that is needed: more in the patient’s home, more in the patient’s community, redesigning the patient pathway – that’s the kind of change the NHS needs. The last thing the NHS needs is structural organisation change.

You say that, but in Islington there was a massive civic demonstration and campaign against the movement of services out of the Whittington hospital, that I was part of. That’s another thing you’d need to confront, because the public doesn’t want to see its frontline services cut, or even reconfigured…
This is where Labour deserve huge credit. As a government, we did do the difficult reconfigurations of services, often in our own back yard – maternity in Greater Manchester, Accident and Emergency in Burnley, the whole reconfiguration in Hartlepool – because we were told that changes would save lives. Any minister who is told by clinicians that change will save lives has a moral responsibility to pursue that change. But you can’t do it in the teeth of absolute opposition, and if you aren’t able to persuade local people of that clinical case for change then obviously there comes a point where you have to rethink plans. The Whittington is a case in point. But what you saw elsewhere – in Greater Manchester, for example – is that when we made a strong argument for reconfiguration, people responded. Eventually, the Manchester Evening News supported our case, that the plans would save 50 babies’ lives every year. In Burnley, leading clinicians said it would save 200 lives a year to centralise the A&E at Blackburn. So we had the courage to back up those changes. It’s hard to make changes in the National Health Service, but it can happen if politicians show leadership and make a very careful argument to the local public. As a politician you’ve got to lead public debate on health service change, rather than just follow the public debate. I think we can point to examples where we did do that. On your question about how will we campaign against the White Paper – I think this is the most dangerous reform ever proposed to the NHS. It takes away the heart of the NHS, and everything it stands for. So we’ll be running a campaign over the summer where we capture the disquiet amongst NHS staff and the public about the proposed changes – and I believe there is considerable disquiet – so that when the Bill comes to parliament in the autumn we’re able to point to a considerable groundswell of anxiety about the proposals. Our campaign will not just be based on kneejerk opposition; it will be a broad-based analysis, formed on a groundswell of opposition, because my early soundings tell me there is deep unhappiness about this.

You’ve talked about political leadership. There was a bit of noise in the press last week about you dropping out of the leadership race. Who knows whether that was based on briefings and counter-briefings or whatever – so let’s clear it up now: are you in the race through to the very end, and to win?
100%, on both fronts. I’m not being a Prima Donna about these briefings – these things get said in races – but I came straight out and refuted it because I believe it was inspired by a real concern at the momentum I’m building. So I took it as a sign that I’m beginning to threaten a few people. On the Labour Party website today, I’m in a solid third position when it comes to nominations – and there are more to come in than are currently showing. So on what basis would I be pulling out? It made no sense, it was totally untrue. My momentum is building.

It does feel that this leadership contest seems to have taken a turn for the dramatic – even recriminatory – over the last week, with Peter Mandelson’s book now being serialised and the timing of that. You were strong in your criticism of that book, calling it “self-indulgent, arrogant, egotistical, factional”. Don’t you think Labour needs to air some of that dirty laundry if it’s to have a sincere and deep clean discussion and understand some of its failures?
Personally, I think it’s time for a new generation to set out its stall for the future of the Labour Party, and it’s time for some of the voices of the past to clear the stage and let us do that.

Mandelson, Blair…?
I’m not naming anybody, but I think it’s time to let a new generation have the floor. And yes some of that is about identifying where we went wrong – that’s what we’ve been doing. This actually goes to the heart of why I’m standing: Labour needs to make a clean break from the self-indulgence, the arrogance, the elitism, the factionalism that represented the worst of the New Labour years. I don’t say that to denigrate what we achieved as a government, because we achieved fantastic things and I say it at every hustings: I’m proud of what we achieved. I’m proud to have served under Tony Blair, and proud to have served under Gordon Brown. I don’t think you could find anybody who was more loyal to both than me; I was utterly loyal to Tony and utterly loyal to Gordon, and my record backs that up. But equally I think I am entitled now to point out what I believe was wrong with the style of politics at the heart of New Labour, and I think there was an elitist style that alienated party members, gave the impression that we were courting media elites, business elites and that we didn’t have our priorities right. I represent a total and clean break with all of that.

So if this book re-rakes those old arguments of Blairism versus Brownism, are you deliberately using its timing to your own advantage, for your own political gain, to present yourself as a unity candidate?
I am a unity candidate, because I never had any time for the factionalism. I played no part in it, and I wasn’t in the inner sanctum of either camp. I became profoundly dispirited by it all at times. It was self-indulgent. But the biggest crime of all these things – the briefings, the dinner party circuit, the friends in the media – was that there was never a thought for the ordinary party member or councillor at the local level, trying to fly the flag for Labour and fighting a local election or a by-election. That’s why I talk about arrogance – the arrogance of people in Westminster – of people not thinking enough about Labour’s frontline, out there day-to-day, trying to do a job and fly the flag for Labour. People in Westminster didn’t ever give that a thought. That’s got to change. So I don’t think it helps Labour to have all this stuff coming out now, and it would be better for Labour if we as candidates could just make our arguments and acknowledge our mistakes in our own words without all this. All this stuff does is bring these stories above the leadership candidates – it’s putting the old personalities and the old stories above what the leadership candidates are saying. It’s selfish, it’s self-indulgent, and it doesn’t help Labour.

A couple of weeks ago you wrote on LabourList about your vision of an Aspirational Socialism. What are the core tenets of Aspirational Socialism?
It’s about rehabilitating the ‘s-word’. I am a socialist; that’s why I joined the Labour Party. So we’ve got to rehabilitate that word and celebrate its good values: collectivism, redistribution. It’s negatively perceived as a word, and the reason it was locked away in a cupboard was because it implied levelling down, or anti-aspiration or punitive taxation. I’m coming back with what is my philosophy, and what always has been my political philosophy: Aspirational Socialism. It captures that sense of what New Labour was about in the beginning, about helping people get on in life to be the best they can, to fulfil their hopes and dreams by redistributing life chances. I’ve talked a lot about ordinary kids without connections – that’s a passion of mine, because it goes back to my own story, my own life. It is much harder for young people who don’t have parents in the know to get on in life, and Aspirational Socialism is about opening up opportunities to those young people from communities where expectations are lower, and where their carers’ advisor at school tells them they can’t aspire to working in one of the country’s leading professions, or to being someone. I’ve described it as the best of Old and New Labour – and I’m very serious about that; it’s combining the best of both. It leaves behind the negatives of New Labour: the arrogance, the elitism, being dazzled by the money and glamour and power that I talked about. But it keeps the good bits of New Labour and positions us where the public are: tough on crime, pro-business, pro-wealth creation, pro-aspiration. And the good bits of Old Labour were that we’d come together to help each other out; we were collectivist; we were redistributive; we were about a fairer society, with a fairer spread of life chances. For me, the party going forward needs to capture the best of both of those – I describe it as Aspirational Socialism.

Right at the beginning of the leadership contest, I said to a friend that how you couch your vision can be very appealing and speaks to a broad range of people: it’s about the injustice of people being left behind due to the educational and wealth inequalities that persist in this country. My friend said then that your pitch was all “motherhood and apple pie”. We all know that these injustices exist – but as leader what are your specific priorities and specific policies to address them?
The biggest policy idea anyone’s put on the table so far is the National Care Service. That isn’t motherhood and apple pie. There’s a very difficult argument to make there about everyone having to pay a compulsory care levy of 10% on their estates. I haven’t shied away of saying that, and indeed I couldn’t persuade the party leadership to support it before the last election because it was deemed to be too frightening. But the National Care Service is the embodiment of Aspirational Socialism. It says that, when it comes to how we care for older people, it’s not good enough that we’re currently letting people fend for themselves in the same way the American healthcare system lets people fend for themselves, with vulnerable people spending tens of thousands in care costs. With the Care Service we come together to a better system where across the population we share the risks and we share the costs – that’s the socialist part of it. The aspirational part of it is that if you pay a 10% care levy, you keep the 90% of what you’ve worked for. So that home you’ve got, the savings you’ve got, you can pass all that on. It broke my grandmother’s heart – a working class Scouser, who bought her own house for the first time – when she had to give away about 30 or 40 grand in care costs towards the end of her life. She wanted nothing more than to give that to us, even though all of us as young firebrand socialists said ‘inheritance is wrong’ – she wanted to give that to us more than anything. She’d built up something and at the end of her life it was all taken off her – at least, that’s how she saw it. So that’s the aspirational part of it. And it’s not motherhood and apple pie because there’s a 10% care levy. I got absolutely pilloried before the election for putting that forward, but I’ve got the courage to come back and put it back on the table. And because of that, I am certain – I am absolutely certain – that we will have a comprehensive care service at some point in this century. Given the demographics, it has to come – and I will keep making the argument until it does come.

That’s at one end of people’s lives, but aspiration is also about the very beginning of people’s lives. So what ideas have you got for two of the biggest challenges in this country: educational funding and the housing crisis?
Like the two Eds – I’m not so sure about David – I am persuaded by a graduate tax. I think that’s a fairer way to charge people for higher education. Where I believe Labour left its story behind is that we worked so hard to get people to university, but what we didn’t do was get those ladders on to the careers beyond university. That’s why I talk about my own experience a lot: I thought doors would just be flung open to me for going to Cambridge, just for saying I had a Cambridge degree. My parents thought, like me – and given that I had no experience and I came from a working class background – that having been to Cambridge everything would magically open up for me. But it didn’t, because I didn’t have those connections. So I look back on that, and I look back at university friends of mine, who got magical opportunities to work in an editor’s office or a trader’s office or a lawyer’s office because they had the right connections or they were in the right social set. My idea is that all work experience, all internships, all placements should be advertised and we should extend access to student finance scheme loans for a couple of years after university so that if it sadly is the way of the world that people have to do unpaid internships to get experience, at least young people from less well-off backgrounds can find a way of sustaining themselves while they do it.

Would you extend that to people who don’t go to university, to help them get on too?
If I could, yes. We’d have to look at the costs of doing that, but absolutely. It’s about opening up that world that’s currently closed off to people.

And on housing?
On housing, the idea is to give councils prudential borrowing permission to buy private rented properties so they come under public control. So properties that have absent landlords, that are poorly maintained or with anti-social tenants, could be bought up by councils under compulsory purchase, so they’ve got an asset they can borrow against and an income stream from the house. Another idea I’m looking at carefully is the allocation policy for council properties, called community contribution. It’s where people get priority according to their connection to a community and the level of voluntary work they do in that community. It’s controversial, but Labour authorities like Manchester and Newham have often led the way on this kind of thinking, and the housing allocation policy has much stronger support from the public than in other areas. So that’s another thing I’ll look at.

I went over your voting record again this morning, and there are some things that will trouble a lot of Labour members in there. You voted for the Iraq war, for ID cards, for Trident renewal, against an investigation into the Iraq war, for 42 days. You can’t conflate all those things, of course, but nor can you distance yourself from your deep role in some of the things which have most aggravated party members in the past…
All of those things were with the Labour whip, and I don’t believe I was sent to parliament to break the Labour whip. If people think that makes me a diminished politician, then that’s up to them. But my constituency in Leigh voted Labour to sustain a Labour government, and to me that means I go to support the government position in parliament, unless I have a fundamental moral objection. I’m not saying I would never break a Labour whip, but in the cases you’ve mentioned, much of that was core Labour policy. I’m not going to be one of those in this campaign who throws away all of that. On ID Cards, the challenge of proving identity won’t go away; it’s going to be a recurrent issue of this century. I think our failure on that was in explaining how greater control over identity actually empowers the individual, rather than being a diminution of civil liberties. If you’ve got more control over your identity, I believe it strengthens you in relation to the misuse of your data, and your ability to protect yourself against identity fraud. That was the argument about identity cards empowering the individual that we never quite landed; that’s it’s your lock and key over your own identity, so nobody else can come and encroach upon or misappropriate your personal details. I think time will bring us back to that, as proving identity in the internet age becomes a bigger and bigger issue.

But those things are issues that still aggrevate Labour supporters…
Yeah, but I’m not going to stand for the leadership saying ‘I wonder what Labour supporters are annoyed about, I’ll change my position on all of those things’. I hope people will have some respect for somebody who still sticks by their record – because I still believe I was voting for the right thing. I contributed to the internal debate within the party as those policies were being developed, and I was the minister who brought the Identity Cards Bill through. I didn’t do it because Tony Blair asked me to; I did it because I believed in it, and I still believe in it. So I hope I’ll get some reward for being somebody who doesn’t just jettison the positions I’ve argued for over many years.

There’s one other that I haven’t mentioned yet. Pink News said that you have the worst gay rights voting record of the candidates. You voted in favour of amendments which discriminated against lesbian couples’ rights to access of IVF treatment and you abstained on three votes relating to the rights of gay couples adopting children. What do you say to the LGBT community who may still be concerned about those aspects of your record?
I’m happy for the chance to set the record straight on this, and to say something more, because I feel something of a disservice was done in terms of the way that was first reported. I voted for all of the main motions in terms of gay adoption. The votes I missed were procedural votes – I can’t remember the exact dates, I think it was May 17th and May 21st, and my daughter was born on May 19th. So I’d made the effort to be in parliament for the main vote, but my wife was two weeks overdue with my second child and I had to be with her. I hope that clears up that issue: I voted for the main motions on the substantive issue, and I was absolutely proud to do so because I fully support gay adoption and my voting record backs that up. But I was away from parliament for an overriding personal reason: the birth of my daughter. On IVF, I do draw a distinction between giving a child that’s already in the world a stable and loving home, and the support you would want to put in place in an ideal world when you are bringing a new life into the world through IVF. And I have a view about this that’s rooted in equality, which is that every life that you bring forward you should have the highest aspirations for and you should aspire to give the broadest network of support to. Personally, I feel that a female role model and a male role is important for everybody. So it wasn’t to discriminate against anybody – I support IVF for lesbian couples – but I do believe it’s important that the child concerned has access to a male role model that is legally recognised so that throughout life that person can be a source of strength and support to that child.

We’re about half way into this leadership election. How do you feel you’re doing in getting your message across generally to the electorate in this contest? Do you feel like you’re being heard, do you feel like you’re being listened to, do you feel you’re breaking through?
Increasingly, yeah, I do. I don’t think anyone else has given such a clear explanation of their political philosophy as I have with Aspirational Socialism. And I didn’t just come up with a phrase, I’ve backed it up with very specific policy: on young people’s life chances and at the other end of life with the National Care Service. So I believe I’ve put on the table both a political philosophy and the inspirational policy to back it up. I think I’ve also got a very clear critique of where Labour went wrong and what we need to do to change that. For me, the main truth of the election was that Labour had become dangerously disconnected from ordinary working people. I’m beginning to get momentum because people can see in me someone who can reconnect the party with the people who’ve lost sight of who we are and what we stand for. That’s been my argument all the way through. Recent events, as unhelpful as they are, do allow me to show that I’m not more of the same, of New Labour as it was before. I am a clean break from that Westminster-centric approach, and that elitist view of the world where we cosied up to media and business elites, or that factionalist approach to Labour politics. I’m a clean break from all that; my record shows that and I think people are beginning to see that and respond to it.

You talked earlier about being third in the race on the Labour Party website in terms of nominations. But, as it stands, David Miliband has 80-plus MPs behind him and 60-plus CLPs; Ed Miliband has over 60 MPs and over fifty CLPs nominating him. You’ve got 33 MP nominations and just 10 CLP nominations. That’s a huge gap between you and the leaders. It’s starting to look ever more like a two horse race, isn’t it?
I am making progress. More CLPs have nominated me than are yet on the website. I accept that I’m coming from further behind, and that I’m the underdog in the race. But it’s a long campaign, and I can see the dynamic already changing as people begin to hear and pick up more about what I’m saying. I think I am offering something very distinctive and different, something that’s true to Labour’s roots – and it’s a vision that speaks to Labour Party members, something that’s based around a view of the world that says that Westminster isn’t the bee-all and end-all of everything. That’s very resonant with lots of Labour members, and, because of that, my grassroots support is building. Nominations are only an indication of support – it’s important that none of us read them as the votes of trade unionists and Labour Party members. So there’s a long way to go. It’s a five horse race, not a two horse race – and second preferences will potentially come into play.

Do you have a second preference strategy?
A common reaction that our team picks up is that lots of people are going to the hustings thinking they’ve got a candidate, and they go away thinking it’s all actually a lot harder than they thought. So a lot of people are tuning in and picking up the nuances of what people are saying and until anybody gets their ballot paper, fills them in and turns them back in, it’s a five horse race. I am seeking to get the broadest possible support, and I obviously want people’s second preferences if they won’t put me as their first. I don’t have a calculating strategy for it. But that’s it in a nutshell: I’m not going after a sectional interest, courting the civil liberties vote or the anti-Iraq vote – I’m not courting any votes. I’m just sticking to what I’ve always said, doing what I always do. I don’t believe in saying things in the campaign that I’ve not really said before, and I won’t change my position for the convenience of the campaign. And because of that, I hope I’ve got appeal in the broad swell of the Labour Party.

I think basing your campaign in Manchester was a masterstroke in many ways, but is that distance from London and the media perhaps part of the reason you’re finding it difficult to get the coverage of some of the other candidates?
Well, maybe. But the media aren’t voting in this election. They think they are, and they think they called the deputy leadership too – but they weren’t voting in the deputy leadership either. People shouldn’t make the mistake of equating media coverage with support in the Labour Party and the trade union movement. I’m absolutely very proud to have based my campaign in Manchester. It symbolises the change I would bring to the Labour Party. I can’t say it strongly enough: the days of parachute candidates would be well and truly over in a Labour Party that I lead. The days of taking councillors for granted, taking members for granted, of not listening the party would be absolutely, completely finished. We need a Labour Party that’s much more balanced in terms of the country, in its relationship with Scotland and Wales and now in Northern Ireland and Brussels. We need a different kind of Labour Party. When I go round the country and speak to MSPs and AMs and MEPs, they all feel the same: that Westminster was not listening, that it was a one-way street, that we could have avoided lots of mistakes, on agency workers, for example. If people in Westminster had listened to the party and the party’s elected representatives out on the ground, we’d have been in a better position. The leader of my council, Peter Smith – a very eminent person in local government, one of Labour’s leading lights – tells the shocking tale that he was invited to Downing Street twice: once when Tony Blair was under pressure on education policy, and once when Gordon Brown went to Number 10. That epitomises how we were not listening enough to our own people.

One final question: are you enjoying the campaign?
I am! I mean, it’s hard going…

Did you miss a lot of the World Cup?
I did, I did. You’ve probably heard my oft-repeated joke at hustings that the campaign played havoc with my World Cup viewing – although from England’s point of view, it wasn’t really a bad one to miss. But, yeah, it’s been hard. I’ve obviously had very difficult stuff with my private life, my family life, and the two things coincided in a very unhelpful way. But you can’t time these things. And now I know absolutely why I’m in this race – and in some ways the book coming out this week really reminds me of why I’m in it: I am rejecting some of that old style of Labour Party management. We can never again have the People’s Party run by the London Dinner Party circuit. In a nutshell, that’s why I’m standing.

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