Andy Burnham’s summer interventions over Labour’s future showed that he is a street-fighter gradually emerging from the cocoon of being a junior member of Labour’s post-1997 class of golden children – the Blair- and Brown-era special advisers turned MPs, turned fast-promoted ministers, who now dominate the Labour party leadership.
In placing himself, rhetorically, as a battler against the managerial politics of those years, Burnham seeks to secure political assent for his great personal project – the inclusion of social care in the ‘national’ framework of the NHS, something he is genuinely passionate about.
At the same time, though, such powerfully advocated ‘big thinking’ allows Burnham to redefine himself, from technocrat to campaigner, which makes him both a less collegiate and a more significant politician.
There are some close to the Labour leadership who are deeply irritated by Burnham’s public shifts. Privately, they point out that there are few clear costings associated with his NHS and social care project and that it is hard for any leader and chancellor to sign off on such an open-ended budget commitment. Seen in that light, such bravery could look self-serving treachery.
Whatever the motivation, there is no doubt that Burnham has fought his way out of a tough spot. After the Keogh report, his defence of Labour’s NHS record has endeared him to many in the party, while his demands for bigger thinking in politics both reflects and subtly critiques the positioning that won his boss the Labour leadership. This means if Ed Miliband is minded to shift Burnham, he now has to consider that this might be seen as a step back to caution and managerialism, while Burnham himself is now definitively his own man.
He may not be king hereafter, but this new Burnham would probably be back on the leadership shortlist, if Labour had a vacancy.
Interventions like Burnham’s mean a sticky summer left Labour hot and bothered, but can cool heads stop the August meltdown turning into an autumn poll fall?
Since the start of recess, prime ministerial hyperactivity and improving economic data met only torpor from Labour’s leaders, a summer drowsiness punctured only by complaints about them from MPs. Even when more junior shadow ministers stepped into the breach, they fizzled, rather than sizzled. A living standards campaign fronted by the coolly competent Chris Leslie lacked punch, and Chris Bryant got himself into a muddle over migrants. Only Stella Creasy covered herself in glory, and her headlines were not about her crime prevention brief. As a result, grumpiness is the order of the day.
One Westminster veteran told your insider that one reason for this discontent is MPs escaping the Commons for the summer. If you spend your life shuttling between parliament and your constituency, the endless series of meetings, briefings and debates creates a sense of momentum and a partisan solidarity. Summertime is when you relax, reconnect and discover how little difference all your hard work has made. Whether on holiday or on the doorstep, MPs suddenly come face to face with the indifference, hostility or uncertainty of both constituents and friends. It can be quite a jolt.
If you are not comforted by giant poll leads or government incompetence, soul-searching can occur over the summer barbecue, and that is dangerous.
So what will Labour do to turn its lazy summer around?
First up, show energy by promoting fresh talent. As revealed here before, names like Creasy, Rachel Reeves, Liz Kendall and Luciana Berger are praised by those close to the leader, while underperforming male, middle-aged former ministers get only eye-rolls and irritation.
Then knock ‘em dead at conference. Miliband’s speech last year defined Labour’s values as being ‘One Nation’. This year the job is to explain what that means for voters. Allies are busy preparing supportive pamphlets (one such, edited by Reeves and Owen Smith, is being particularly keenly anticipated), while the speech itself will contain concrete policy choices, probably in areas like housing, cutting living costs and increasing wages.
Taken together, fresh faces and fresh policies should get Labour out of its summer swoon and back into campaign mode.
Who’s the boss?
One such fresh face will be the new election coordinator. You will probably know the answer by the time you read this. So why was there a delay? The reason is straightforward. The two most obvious choices – Michael Dugher or Douglas Alexander – are not straightforward Miliband loyalists, and could be seen, fairly or not, as either a reversion to Brownite ‘old politics’ or centrist capitulation.
What is more, the complexity of Labour’s policymaking and campaigning structures means that agreeing the spine of the campaign will require everyone from Jon Cruddas and Ed Balls to Angela Eagle and Harriet Harman, while, on the party management side of things, the leader’s office, the general secretary and various community campaigners will all have to be kept happy. These groups have very different interests, so the campaign chief will need to be both negotiator and dictator. That could well be a bit of a poisoned chalice, unless they can speak with the absolute authority of the leader.
So those close to the leader have been talking up 100 per cent Miliband alternatives, who would have that total confidence. Unfortunately, the few true Miliband loyalists in the shadow cabinet make unlikely campaign chiefs, and are needed to do heavy lifting in the media. So we might well end up with a job share, a full-time professional heading up the machine-management and a politician doing the strategic and media work.
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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