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.’
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