Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

‘We’ve lacked emotional connection’

The question for Labour is who is best placed to win in 2020, says Andy Burnham

As someone who held positions as a special adviser, a minister and a secretary of state in the last Labour government it might be tempting for Andy Burnham to distance himself from New Labour’s record – for example, by saying that schools should return to local authority control. Burnham immediately insists this is not what he has said at all. ‘I’ve not said give schools back to local authorities. I’ve never said that. What I do believe in is a role for local authorities in overseeing the education system at a local level, ensuring fairness in entrants and placements, for example, and planning of places.’

Indeed, Burnham is keen to ‘celebrate’ Labour’s academies programme, ‘because it was about focusing on failure and trying a new and innovative approach in respect of failure.’ He believes it is a ‘mistake’ to ‘conflate Labour’s academies programme with the Tory academy programme, because they’re now saying, “Just academise everything.” Well, I don’t personally agree with that, because I think that ends up with a very broken-down, atomised education system that is very … competitive, rather than collaborative.’

We ask about fellow former special adviser Peter Hyman’s pioneering free school, School 21, in east London – does that not show there is a role for innovation in education? ‘Of course’, Burnham responds, ‘but my criticism is not of those individuals or of those individual schools that they create. It’s of the free school programme.’ ‘In the end, is it right to be allowing such wide experimentation with education, given that the kids who go through those schools get one go at it? … Education has got to be changed carefully, I would say, with consent and with the support of local people.’

So if free schools are not allowed, how does Burnham propose to inject the innovation he welcomes? ‘I would personally favour more flexibility and freedom for heads’. His ‘big critique’ of schools policy under both the Tories and Labour is, ‘the focus on five A to Cs, because I think that gives an in built incentive to focus on certain kids and then not focus on others. I think we need an education system that is judged by the difference it make for every single child and places a much greater priority on technical education than it currently does today. So, I would want to have a school system that is kind of less, if you like, prescriptive about how schools are judged, and pushes more power down to the local level to reshape education.’

Understandably, Burnham’s other major area for reform is the NHS, but is he not worried that his proposed merger between health and social care would be blocked by public sector unions? He dismisses the concern: ‘I’m not sure it would cause great upheaval, because it’s the way that people naturally want to go at local level, it’s going with the grain. I think people will realise that there’s no future for a health service that differentiates between one kind of care and another in an era when people’s needs are increasingly becoming a blur of physical, mental and social care.’

Burnham continues, ‘I think most people who work in public services would recognise that this is the right thing to do and they would recognise how unfair it is that somebody who is looking after an older person in their home paid through the social care system and through the council commissioning service gets much worse treatment than somebody providing care in a healthcare setting.’

He does have one issue with the way New Labour pursued reform, however: ‘I think that we got into difficulties in the past where people have not been clear about what the purpose of the reform is.’ For example, he suggests that in government ‘when we were talking a lot about choice … rightly, people felt there was a hidden agenda around competition and markets and I think then you get a kind of distrust of the reform … Or you take the Lansley reforms, where he was saying it was about letting the GP decide. Well, in the end those reforms weren’t about that and I think that’s what builds distrust between politicians and public services.’

I’ve never particularly aligned myself completely and wholeheartedly with any one particular faction within the party

The job of the next Labour leader will be partly to make the case for rebuilding the public realm. So would Burnham as leader talk about where money is wasted in the public sector? He replies, ‘The argument I have been prosecuting over a long period of time is … if you make short-sighted cuts to parts of the public sector, ie social care, in the end it creates a major efficiency problem in another part of the public sector and that is in this case acute hospitals.’ ‘I think what we have to do is present a vision for the reform of public services that is also a vision about the financial affordability of those services.’

One area where Burnham has suggested a break from policy under Ed Miliband’s leadership (along with a number of the leadership candidates) is in Labour’s approach to business. ‘The Labour party doesn’t celebrate people who employ people in our constituencies anything like as much as we should’, he says. Referring to businesspeople in his constituency, as well as his wife’s own stints in self-employment, Burnham continues: ‘Many of them are thoroughly decent people who work hard to look after their workforce, who probably worry every night when they go to bed about how are they are going to make it all add up and ensure that things can be held together.’ In a strong rejection of Ed Miliband’s 2011 party conference speech Burnham concludes: ‘We can’t give out the impression that we see business as predators.’

That is not to say there is not a role for regulating markets, but that is because, as Burnham points out, they ‘don’t create the right conditions for business’ and require correcting ‘from time to time’. He highlights rail as an example of where the travelling public are not getting a ‘fair deal’ and that ‘there’s evidence there that we could have more public control of the railways’ but that it is about getting the ‘balance right and having an appropriate approach for each different sector of the economy’.

Burnham, who came fourth in the 2010 leadership election, reflects on how different the race is this time around.  ‘I am proud of the fact that school dinnerladies, care assistants, shop assistants will have as much say in choosing the next leader of the Labour party as Dave Prentis, Len McCluskey or Paul Kenny.’ While not totally true, as the general secretaries still have a huge role in supporting nominations and directing donations and resources around their chosen candidates, he is right that ‘it’s really incumbent on everyone in the Labour party to celebrate that reform.’ He admits that it ‘didn’t feel right’ in the last leadership election ‘when Ed Miliband’s face dropped through my letterbox on my trade union ballot sheet’ and that he is glad that Miliband ‘was the leader who stopped it.’ Burnham cites his own ‘significant decision’ in this leadership campaign ‘not to accept donations from the trade unions,’ which is important because it ‘separates out the idea that the trade unions back favourite candidates within internal races. I think it is better that the trade union donations are used to fight the real enemy, the Conservative party, and I also feel that the decision I’ve taken will put me in a stronger position to defend the historic link between the Labour party and the trade union movement.’

As a former vice-chair of Progress Burnham’s silence was deafening when the GMB proposed our ejection from the party. He simply says, ‘I have never been factional as a politician. I was loyal to Tony Blair, loyal to Gordon Brown, loyal to Ed Miliband. I’ve never particularly aligned myself completely and wholeheartedly with any one particular faction within the party. I think they’ve all got something valuable to say and something valuable to offer.’ The former special adviser and cabinet member may yet struggle to portray himself as the candidate who shows the party is ‘not stuck in the Westminster bubble, that we are actually a party that is in the real world and responding to their real concerns’. But, Burnham concludes, in considering what he would say to win over the undecideds, ‘This leadership election is not about who wins this individual election. It’s got to be about: who is the person best placed to win for Labour at the next election? And I would say the biggest thing that stands in the way of that is the lack of emotional connection that we now have with people all over the UK.’


Photo: The BMA

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Richard Angell

is director of Progress

Adam Harrison

is a councillor in the London borough of Camden


  • Am I the only one who feels like telling the Labour party “GET OVER YOURSELVES!!”
    This lack of emotion, engagement and listening… is its own doing – nobody else’s fault.
    My question remains “how is it that a political party can be so disconnected from real people, truth and aspiration?” It’s simple – “Because it wants to be”.
    Similarly, I don’t feel I am the only individual who recognises that TV and media is disconnected to real people and community development too.
    Thus, Is there a purpose to all of this that just simply benefits the powerful – not the majority?

  • The problem with education structures is that here, as elsewhere so often, the Tories have practically won the debate of language. Thus it’s put as “local authority control” versus “freeing headteachers”! Who’s not in favour of freedom. Who’s not in favour of choice, as if none existed before free schools and academies?

    The problem with the choice was often that the faith secondary schools were former grammar schools who inherited a reputation as “good schools” however you define that, as againat the former secondary modern schools which weren’t.

    In fact, what with the dilemma of single sex schools and coeducational schools, RC and CofE and non-denominational state schools (or “community schools” if you think “state” is a dirty word), it’s often the frankly-not-interested-in-religion parents who end up with the least choice, obliged to send their children to schools whose faith varies from tokenist to more evangekical than you might wish for your tot.

    I understand why Andy is reluctant to reverse history. For one thing it requires messy and controversial legislation. But people may perceive his Catholicism is making him (small c) conservative. And that in the interest of getting selected and elected he is trying not to rock the boat. The risk is that by sitting on the fence you can end up being spiked by your own wavering. Jeremy as the luxury of no inhibitions, being fairly of not being elected. Though that has not stopped him talking much good sense, Andy is trying not to lose the Labour centre but may end losing support on all fronts. Tough job, running for Leader!

  • Spot on with the opening gambit IAS2011. We now need as party activists get involved in delivering the services the Tories refuse to fund. If all we do at local level is moan and gripe about cuts, then the state of local services is going to be horrific. Lets put the red coat on find a local cause and get things done. Then people will genuinely see what a Labour Party is all about.

    The moment you start employing vast numbers of people on general election only contracts in areas they do not know it is a recipe for disaster. Tories propaganda will read we only come out during elections, no real local understanding comes across on the doorstep and people who don’t know us think we are a bunch of idiots who don’t understand them and just want their vote!

    I still believe in Labour ideals of equality for all, and a fair days work for a fair days pay. However, the cuts to Local Governement are coming. Those who are able, need to give their time. We are going to need all of our labour spirit to get through the next 5 years and still provide good, community led, local services.

    In Erdington we have 50-60 volunteer deliverers. Most of whom aren’t members of the party and I’m sure that is probably the case up and down the country. How about we give these volunteers 12 months free membership, you never know they might just turn up to a ward meeting and renew! Mr Burnham you are right that we have lost that emotional connection because we got to worried about winning votes instead of doing a good job of delivering services. Do a good job and the votes will come.

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