Time was when Andy Burnham passed for a middle-of-the-road Labourite: he was deemed insufficiently dramatic and impressive to secure much support when he stood for leader five years ago. But these days, his colleagues — and the bookmakers — consider the shadow health secretary the frontrunner in any new contest. At an otherwise funereal Labour conference last year, his speech received standing ovations.
In three months’ time, Burnham will either be health secretary or a serious contender for Labour leader. He has already survived calls from within his party to remove him from the health brief, though he claims Miliband has never raised the prospect.
We meet in the smaller of his two parliamentary offices, in the rabbit warren of MPs’ accommodation in the old Norman Shaw buildings, and he is keen to play the loyal lieutenant, praising his leader for getting Labour into a ‘position now where, weeks away from a general election, we can win’ after just one term. But he is clearly keen for another crack at winning the top job himself. ‘What I want to do is to support Ed through the campaign, and afterwards,’ he says, while beaming awkwardly. It’s hard for him to disguise his ambition, when the prospect of his leadership is being so keenly advocated by those around him.
So how has Burnham managed to turn his career prospects around so effectively? Has he reinvented himself? He accepts the Labour leadership battle forced him to work out why he was in politics. He concluded it was to ‘represent people with no representation’. For him, these include victims of the Hillsborough tragedy. He says he was changed by his involvement in the campaign for justice for the victims because it was ‘an example of where I had to stand out a little bit from the mainstream of where we were in the last government, and again, people might say it is all convenient, but it’s not’.
He is clearly sensitive to the charge he has become opportunist, referring a number of times to people accusing him of taking ‘convenient’ stances on issues from Hillsborough to the NHS. On Hillsborough, though, he has his own accusation for his party. ‘I knew there was a massive injustice. It’s sad to say this, but I think the last [Labour] government couldn’t see that because it was too close to the establishment at times. Belatedly, I tried to correct that.’
That correction won Burnham campaigner of the year at The Spectator’s Parliamentarian awards in 2012, an accolade that hangs proudly above his seat. What isn’t on display in the office is a collection of Russian dolls with the faces of recent health secretaries, sent to him by a health consultancy; he tells me his children now play it with at home. The set includes key ministers from Jeremy Hunt to Aneurin Bevan, with Burnham one of a handful from the last Labour administration. The Alan Milburn doll fits quite nicely inside the wooden rendition of Burnham, but that’s where their compatibility ends — judging by the way Burnham set about changing Labour health policy as soon as he took the job.
‘People keep forgetting this but I took a difficult decision at the time, to say I wanted a different approach, because I suppose I am mainstream Labour,’ he says.
‘Mainstream Labour’ for Burnham is non Blairite, and means a deep suspicion of markets. ‘I am very clear that the market is not the answer to 21st-century health and care because of the logic of it,’ he says. ‘If, like the current government, you require services to be to tendered, you create more fragmentation rather than integration.’
The Blair reforms were designed to encourage diversity of providers, the NHS and Bupa clinics working side by side. But Burnham sees ‘diversity’ as ‘fragmentation’ and he describes the inclusion of the market as an ‘experimentation’ that ‘politicians here I think have been too cavalier with… for too long’.
Burnham has clearly made up his mind that there will be no more ‘experimentation’. But is he right? Liz Kendall, his own colleague in the shadow health team, recently said that ‘what matters is what works’. Would Burnham agree with that Blairite mantra? ‘My response is that it’s the NHS that works. It has worked pretty well for 67 years, and I’m talking about the public NHS.’
Labour activists might find it easy to applaud Burnham when he comes out with this sort of thing. But those affected by the scandals in Mid Staffs and Morecambe Bay might feel rather less stirred. On that he says: ‘Things go wrong in any health system and it’s happened and it’s sad and we’ve got to learn every time and minimise the chance of it happening again.’ But, he says, these cases do not define ‘the whole of the NHS’.
One solution for Burnham is to integrate health and social care, a noble aim, but controversial because it would inevitably lead to bed closures as more services move out of hospitals. Burnham accepts some beds would go, but only ones where elderly patients tend to wait for too long while their home care is arranged. ‘I don’t mind making a difficult argument about that, because I think a moment of honesty with the public is important.’
But isn’t Burnham just proposing another massive top-down reorganisation? No, he says. Repealing sections of Cameron’s controversial Health and Social Care Act is not a reorganisation because he will keep things like Clinical Commissioning Groups and Health and Wellbeing Boards and just ‘re-focus’ them.
He also wants to devolve power and money to councils for health commissioning. The difference between his devolution plan and one put forward by George Osborne for Manchester is that Osborne ‘fails my reorganisation test’. This sounds rather as though the shadow minister is saying that any change to the system is bad unless it’s a Labour change.
In any case, the predominantly Labour councils in Greater Manchester went for Osborne’s plan, and Burnham admits that they did not approach him beforehand to ask what more he could offer if their party came to power in a few months’ time. Perhaps this suggests those pragmatic local authorities don’t expect a Labour government. But even if Burnham does not have a chance to be Health Secretary again, it doesn’t matter. He’s got a good chance of being included in a future set of Russian dolls — of Labour leaders.
Can anyone save the NHS?
Join us on 17 March to discuss whether anyone can save the NHS. Speakers include Andy Burnham, shadow secretary of health and Charlotte Leslie, member of the Health Select Committee. This event has been organised by The Spectator in collaboration with Pfizer. More information can be found here.
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