Andy Burnham is wrong – Labour doesn’t have until Spring to stop treading water

10th August, 2013 2:11 pm

There’s a great deal of interest today in Andy Burnham’s Guardian interview with Decca Aitkenhead. Whilst some have painted this as an attack on Miliband, or even a putative leadership bid, I’m afraid that doesn’t wash. Andy Burnham makes an unconvincing assassin – but he does make a compelling frustrated colleague, eager to push forwards with his major project but frustrated by the intransigence of his superiors, who were once his peers.

If anything, the target of Burnham’s frustration is probably not Miliband, but Balls. The Shadow Chancellor has kept the purse strings tightly fastened for years now, to the extent that Shadow Cabinet members are beginning to wonder how they can make any impact at all without being able to commit to anything financially. In most cases a fair response is to tell the Shadow Cabinet to be more imaginative – but that’s a significantly tougher task when you’re talking about merging the NHS and Social Care. Balls isn’t budging, and Burnham evidently fears his grand plan to remake the health service could fall by the wayside.

Frustration is understandable. Frustration with Labour’s lack of policy boldness is something I feel too.

Also, as the reshuffle rumours intensify (and they’ve been rumbling on for months now) some have suggested that Burnham could be moved away from the Health brief – possibly swapping roles with Yvette Cooper. So by putting down a clear marker that changing the NHS is where his passion lies makes it more likely that he’ll stay in post, by tying himself indelibly to Labour’s NHS plans.

But where Burnham is wrong is when he suggests that the Labour leadership has until Spring to put our cards on the table. Spring is too late. There’s already a sense of drift in the party. MPs are beginning to wonder what Ed Miliband’s leadership is for. We don’t have a clear election strategy – or a strategist. We lack headline policies that are easy to explain – meaning activists are being sent naked onto the doorstep. And it’s not about shouting louder, as Burnham suggests, because we’ve had plenty of noise from the party but precious little worth shouting about.

Shouting louder about our timid plans is a recipe for failure, not victory.

There needs to be a clear sense that Labour has the policies and the political will to change Britain for the better. At the moment that is lacking, and if it’s still lacking after conference, we’ll look like we have nothing to say – and it will be time to panic. Spring? If we’re still in this position in Spring, the General Election may well be lost already.

The whole party needs to up its game now – another six months of treading water would be madness.


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  • Monkey_Bach

    Although Burnham sin’t perfect he is one of the few shadow cabinet members who seem to exhibit real emotion and to give a sh*t about other people and something beyond his own career. I’m not sure the same can be said about Ed Balls or his lady wife Yvette Cooper. Just saying. Eeek.

  • Mike Homfray

    I think what Andy has done is to say what will happen. By Spring we will have what he suggests.

    • keggsie

      I hope you are right MIke. Somehow I’m beginning to wonder. What happened to the so-called policy review heralded after Ed’s election win?

      • reformist lickspittle

        It is due to report its initial findings at the autumn conference.

        Hope this helps 😉

  • IAmCabal

    I have defended Ed Miliband from his numerous detractors for several years now, as he appears to be a genuinely progressive, thoughtful Labour leader willing to take on the vested interests that have a stranglehold over our democracy. However, if he moves Andy Burnham away from Health I will seriously consider resigning my membership of the party. To my mind, Burnham is the ONLY member of the Shadow Cabinet who has been clear and consistent in challenging the Coalition’s policies and proposing a better alternative. Rather than consider moving him on the basis of some rather obvious smearing by his political enemies, Miliband should be looking to replace members of the Shadow Cabinet with those who can actually take the fight to the Coalition. Accepting failed economic strategies and ideological attacks on the very people the Labour Party was set up to represent and defend is not going to result in a mass wave of union members signing up to the party. Burnham is doing a fantastic job and Miliband should be asking why other leading figures have been so notable in their absence.

    • reformist lickspittle

      Have to say that replacing him with the uninspiring, under-performing, notably silent recently and grossly overrated by the media bubble, Cooper would be a retrograde move indeed. Burnham scares the Tories where he is – hence the concerted smear campaign against him. Don’t do it, Ed.

    • Derek Robinson

      If he moves him, he has lost my vote.
      Without the NHS the Labour party will be as good as finished.
      Better rid of Balls. He is tarnished by the past and disliked by people in general.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    Balls does seem to be the problem, in not allowing any form of policy / spending commitments to be made. I think Andy Burnham does have the kernel of a good idea in closely associating social care with medical care, but that he is prevented from making more of it.

    My first two thoughts are:

    1. Is Balls trying to protect his own tattered reputation for being sensible economically at the expense of the Labour Party’s electoral chances?

    2. Who rules the roost? Miliband or Balls?

    I would very much like to see Ed Balls returned to the back benches and then forgotten about quickly in Ed’s reshuffle. I think it would do the Labour Party a lot of good. It is not as though he would become a good Chancellor, and so many people across the country hate him for his past that he has become a liability.

    • Derek Robinson

      Balls.. Milliband is listening to the wrong people.

  • Amber_Star

    Andy Burnham has seen off the ‘Get Burnham’ campaign by Tory HQ. So can we please not do their dirty work for them by shuffling him out of a role which he appears to have real passion & enthusiasm for.

    • $6215628

      Unfortunately, I feel Andy’s real anger with Ed M, is that ED B, is telling our leader,not to commit to spending, and where rightly we’ve opposed the Tories reforms of theNHS ,we can’t say how we’re going to reverse the Tories policy, while our Shadow chancellor, is sticking to Tory spending plans, if Ed M, had a decent Shadow chancellor, things maybe different,

      • Derek Robinson

        It’s easy … just take back anything privatised. done

    • $6215628

      Posted too son, Chuka,maybe

    • Derek Robinson

      I don’t think Milliband dare it will be his certain downfall.

  • Grouchy Oldgit

    Labour seemed to be relying on winning protest votes over the state of the economy. But it seems (despite, not because of Osborne) recession is finally ending and recovery could be well under way by election day, so where does that leave Labour? To most people “one nation” is yet another cheap soundbite like “big society” and “back to basics”. Championing education and health with real policies that make a real difference would be a start. And closing tax loopholes for the rich. But figures last week show GB is having a new baby boom, all of whom will need somewhere to live. A mass COUNCIL house building program is desperately needed (and would win votes), and they should be protected from being sold off – cheap or otherwise.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    I think there is also another “hillock” to get over in the autumn, around the time of your Conference. 100 years of union / Party closeness confronting a “man with a plan”, armed only with a sense of righteousness not yet communicated to the Party supporters.

    I suspect that this autumn conference, and the weeks around it dealing with unions will be the make or break of Ed Miliband, not what might happen in May 2015. Whatever happens, the media narration will be set – he will either be triumphant, or heckled for the next 18 months.

    It is very odd – perhaps even suspicious – that the man only in a position of leadership because of union votes picks this time to have an existential fight with the unions. None of us know the contents of the Falkirk report, as it is kept secret, but there are two possibilities. Either the report is innocuous, and so Ed Miliband is most stupidly politically blind, or the contents of the report are so explosive that he had no choice. If the former, I do not want him as my Prime Minister. If the latter, I applaud him for his courage in everything apart from telling the rest of us what the report contained.

  • rekrab

    Yep Mark, conference will be consumed by the opt out debate, as labour bottle necks further to a point of closure.We used to know what the labour party stood for, we don’t any-more?

    • RogerMcC

      The whole point of having a special Spring conference (and I may be the only person on the left who actually liked Luke Akehurst’s idea of formally relegating the Autumn conference to the pep rally it actually is and having a real policy and business orientated Spring conference from which media are banned every year) is so that all open discussion of opt-in can be banned from the main conference.

      And if Labour had any sense – although I don’t know think it has the time particularly if a bunch of new Shadows have to be broken in – we would be launching lots of what our former Dear Leader called ‘eye-catching initiatives’ this conference.

      • rekrab

        Conferences in general in nowadays settles very little and create more confusion than answers. Such a massive proposed change as opt in will spill over into decades of debates, it may well be banned from conference as normal but it’s sure will be present in delegates minds.

        I suspect conference will be like that golden oldie tune “Four walls are closing in on me”
        People wants answers, an alternative, a plan to make Britain work, the central ground of politics is locked into the deserving and undeserving attitude. Taking a link out of the chain at this time will only leave the chain broken and un-usable.

        Jeez! conference will be split, progress on one side/ traditionalist on the other! it might even need policed? or partitioned, a peace wall to dived?

        Re-founding labour was just a wiff-tiff! once again the grassroots think new labour has returned.

  • Daniel Speight

    Mark I’m glad you highlighted the Burnham interview as there was quite a bit in it apart from the obvious headline. Up until now I haven’t had much time for the man, reckoning on him being just another New Labour apparatchik who’s playing the professional scouser. Now I am beginning to see a better side of him, although in the interview he admits himself this may be because he has changed.

    Rather than me spout on let’s see the words from Andy’s own mouth.

    “We’re the professional politician generation, aren’t we? I was schooled in this, kind of, how do we make a press release today that embarrasses the opposition? That’s the kind of politics that everyone was doing, and the kind of culture developed where you’re scrabbling over a bit of the centre ground with micro-policies that are designed to just create a little couple of days’ headlines and create a feeling, but not change much else.”

    Maybe it’s Andy Burnham who will become the saviour of the Labour Party and stop it drifting towards a poor copy of the American Democrats. Who knows? Miliband and Cruddas don’t seem to be doing their jobs that well.

    • Hugh

      It’s funny that politicians only ever admit this after the fact; funny, too, that we get this schtick about putting spin behind them from time to time (remember the “not flash, just Gordon”, er, spin?). Doesn’t ever seems to actually happen, though.

      Given that the interview is peppered with an obsession with how policies appear, rather than their inherent worth – “I think there’s definitely a need to shout louder, and speak in a way that captures how people are feeling and thinking”; “What better way for Labour to say it’s relevant to the 21st century” – I doubt Burnham’s the man to break from the trend.

  • crosland

    Glad I didn’t vote for Burnham. What kind of thinking is behind his self indulgent outburst ? He just said (for median purposes) that if we don’t do better by next spring we won’t win in 2015.

    So in a year when most seats retiring are labour and on the same day as the euro
    elections we are going to sweep the board and past UKIP are we ? What a clown,
    and he is supposed to be a senior shadow cabinet member ?

    The Tories must be laughing their socks off.

    • JohnPReid

      Are you saying that if Burnham hadn’t said we’ve got to the spring to get our mp message across, that by the spring if we’re perceived to not stand for anything that’ll be O.K

      • crosland

        No, it just isn’t his brief to say things that will get bounced back on him and everyone else, we have enough doing that. Hhe is supposed to be a shadow cabinet minister and I apply that to any of them.

        • crosland

          Incidentally, if Labour doesn’t stand for anything (not my words) why are we still wining seats ?

          • RogerMcC

            ‘wining’ (sic) which seats?

            We’ve won the parliamentary by-elections that we’d expect to win and county and district seats that we’d expect to win.

            We’ve not however seen the surge towards Labour or maintained the poll lead we really need to be sure of winning the majority we need to reverse the huge damage this coalition has already done.

            All Andy is doing is pointing this out and suggesting in a sensible and comradely manner than he, his colleagues and by extension the rest of us need to get our collective fingers out.

        • Mike Homfray

          I think it’s all part of the build up to the actual announcements

    • RogerMcC

      Er the Euro-elections are in 2014 not 2015.

      And given that you don’t know something as fundamental as that I doubt you actually know how many MPs are retiring (some of whom won’t even announce until the last minute in order to allow the traditional parachuting of those favoured apparatchiks who’ve somehow failed to get democratically selected into a safe seat) or have analysed the likely loss of incumbency effect in what in many cases will be safe seats anyway.

      • crosland

        er… I think a typo is no real thing, I have run elections for years not just posted about them on blogs. What he has said is clumsy and wasn’t thought through, so I stand by what I posted.

        • RogerMcC

          I don’t see how you class that as a ‘typo’ – you either knew that the general election and euro elections are scheduled for different years or you didn’t and your whole argument hinges on that ‘on the same day’.

          In fact that they are not on the same day is almost certainly deliberate.

          If the coalition had gone for a 4-year fixed term parliament they would almost certainly have been – and the boost this would have given UKIP might well have hurt the Tories more than anyone else.

          UKIP supporters may be just sentient enough to be capable of voting UKIP in elections that don’t matter and Tory in those that do but give them a whole fistful of voting slips to fill in on the same day and Lord only knows how confused they’d get.

          So to avoid this the Tories gave themselves an extra year in power and the Lib Dems supinely acquiesced in it.

          And seriously what do you personally have against Andy Burnham?

          Did he run over your dog or something?

          • crosland


            You need to read what I posted. I said he linked success by next spring (local and euro elections) with success in 2015 (general election). By retiring seats I meant local councillrs not MP’s as
            obviously there aren’t any MP’s short of any by-elections.
            The typo I meant was ‘median’ instead of ‘media’.
            I have nothing personally against him, he’s just lightweight and I’m as entitled to an opinion as anyone on any MP’s behaviour.

          • RogerMcC

            OK – I was misled by your leading with 2015 so apologies.

            On retiring councillors really how would you (by which I mean anyone) know?

            Since they stopped funding the Plymouth local elections study there hasn’t even been a proper database of local election results making testing any generalisations at all about local elections extremely difficult (including what if any incumbency effect may or may not exist at this level).

            And we don’t actually know who is ‘retiring’ from a council until the final nominations go in and even then measuring that would be a huge job as you would need to collect nominations and existing councillor data from every separate council website and collate it together.

            Plus you really do seem to feel a special animus against Andy Burnham – which you are fully entitled to but nevertheless seems odd given that when we still had polls here for most effective front bencher he usually won and is genuinely popular within the party.

            And comparing him unfavourably with the universally loathed and despised Hunt is just perverse.

          • crosland

            Every councillor who seeks re-election is retiring for the purposes of being elected – so I don’t need any major study
            results for that. Are they all new then ??
            You’re clutching at straws now.
            Have a nice day.

          • RogerMcC

            That’s mere semantics and technically applies to every level of representation.

            We don’t talk about MPs retiring when they are going to contest their seats again and certainly locally around here we don’t talk about a councillor retiring unless he is leaving the council.

            So your point is that in 2014 the local elections are at a level of local government that Labour has more seats on?

            But this is not actually true.

            The previous elections for the seats contested in May 2014 are those held on the same day as the GE in May 2010.

            And in terms of councillors won the Tories got significantly more seats than Labour in May 2010 and thus in your terms have more councillors ‘retiring’.

            But you do have a very valid point which is now a lot clearer thanks to your elaborating your argument in response to my inability to understand it.

            Despite losing a GE on the same day Labour did relatively well in those 2010 LEs because our turnout was up and because the previous 2006 LEs were held at the height of Tony Blair’s unpopularity.

            But May 2014 will be nationally framed as a Euro election and Labour voters hate turning out for Euros to the degree that there are whole regions with not a single Labour MEP – whereas UKIPers (who are mostly Tories indulging their inner bigot) will turn out en masse although in many cases there will no UKIP local candidate to vote for, while the LDs may have difficulty even finding candidates at all.

            So the 2014 LEs may look very odd indeed but the one thing I would not put money on would be them being a Labour triumph – we may even end up with a few more seats but that will have far more to do with the interplay of UKIP, Tory and Lib Dem votes than anything we do.

            But given that May 2014 will be a bad election for Labour anyway where our getting pushed again to #3 after UKIP and the Tories will be the only big story which will then be used to trigger a whole real or bogus Ed in leadership crisis narrative, Burnham’s demand that we get our act together by then is more rather than less urgent – we need to be sufficiently united and confident in our policies to be able to sail safely through that inevitable crisis.

  • crosland

    If Burnham is so great how come hunt’s progress ? Give it a rest, he has the
    responsibility for the NHS. If we can’t maintain support in that area what chance in the real battleground of the economy.

    As for his NHS reforms he is likely to find half the social service directors in the country against them, along with a fair number of labour run councils when they work out what his ‘advisors’ have actually proposed.

    A messy year ahead and self indulgent comments should be kept within his peers not circulated to the mass media to play games with. Burnham is lightweight and constantly on the backfoot since hunt came in. He should
    have gone for that smarmy so and so’s throat a long time ago.

    • Amber_Star

      YG Poll, released today:

      Do you think that Jeremy Hunt is doing well or badly as Secretary of State for Health?

      Total who think he’s doing well: 21%
      Total who think he’s doing badly: 52%
      Total who don’t know either way: 26%
      Negative rating of -31% so it doesn’t look like Hunt has made much progress.

      • i_bid

        If only popularity was a measure of progress. The Tories have been ruthlessly effective in progressing their ideology these past few decades, regardless of how unpopular it is (and it clearly is unpopular).

      • crosland

        As you like Polls try this one, that light weight MP’s like Andy obviously don’t consider and the narrative with it.

        Andy is clumsy (with his quotes) and needs to sharpen up.
        Appealing to those easily worried by media interpretations of polling is hardly setting a good example.

    • Amber_Star

      At January 2012, Labour were +8 over the Tories when voters were asked which Party was best for the NHS.

      Labour now have a +12 lead over the Tories on the NHS, despite the Tories replacing Lansley with Hunt & despite the allegations about [hypothetical] ‘excessive deaths’ in NHS hospitals which was followed up with a ‘Get Burnham’ political attack.

      It seems to me that the evidence shows Andy Burnham is more than a match for Jeremy Hunt.

    • RogerMcC

      So let me get this right: Burnham is both a ‘lightweight’ and proposing a reform programme so unthinkably radical that it will be rejected by every thinking person.

      Now you may actually be right that Burnham’s plan – and it would be nice to know what it really is and have an actual discussion about it using the increasingly fictional process by which Labour Party policy is supposed to be formulated – is a terrible one.

      But the fact is that he is taking a stand on a huge problem (the future of social care and its integration within the NHS) that government after government has refused to tackle as no likely solution will be a popular one with voters who prefer to simply pretend that they (and their parents/grandparents) will never get old and decrepit at all.

      So even if he is wrong – and I do know enough about these issues to admit this is a strong possibility – his staking his career on a hugely important issue surely makes him the very opposite of lightweight.

      • crosland

        No, it merely suggests he has poor judgement, which is a trait of a lightweight (who can always improve). You really should brush up on your critical reasoning.

  • i_bid

    No platform – who cares?! Let’s deal with the important issues shall we – Labour still haven’t imported enough American election ‘gurus’ to counter Jim Messiah, er, Messina. That’s the real worry here! Thankfully, as has been reported, Labour have been quick to act on that, and we have several lined up! I can finally get some sleep again knowing the problem’s been solved; safe in the knowledge British politics has been further enriched by some remote, unfamiliar, professionalised American electioneer.

  • Amber_Star

    Indeed they have. The Tories & the media dance to the same tune & thereby force unpopular policies into the mainstream until they become generally accepted, regardless of how unpopular they originally were.

    • crosland

      And Andy should know as he is following that very route.

  • RogerMcC

    And yet 3 years ago it was Balls who was the preferred candidate of much of the left….

    What is actually happening is that polls and focus groups are telling Labour that by big and unshakeable margins the electorate believe the lies the media are telling them and won’t vote for spending our way back to prosperity.

    So we can tell the truth and lose the election (and with it the NHS, what’s left of the welfare state and quite possibly the United Kingdom itself none of which are likely to survive another Tory government).

    Or we can maintain the delicate balancing act which the unconquerable gullibility of the electorate and our almost complete inability to get our message across to them via a lying and hostile media forces upon us.

  • $51144918

    who was it who supported nicholson? Balls,Byrne,Umunna,Cooper,and others should be reshuffled.we have local elections,euro elections.we can’t wait until april.


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