by Jonathan Todd
Decca Aitkenhead reported this weekend on Andy Burnham telling her that Labour must shout louder or risk election defeat. Some twitter reaction suggests that this would help Labour on the doorstep. As with Chris Bryant’s Monday morning Today appearance, we might wonder, however, whether it is content more than volume that is causing Labour to fail the Daz doorstep challenge.
Almost exactly five years ago, Aitkenhead interviewed Alistair Darling. Maybe there is something about the summer heat that causes Labour politicians to unbutton themselves around her. “Now Alistair,” Aitkenhead records his political advisor imploring when they sat down for the interview, “tell her everything. Make sure you tell her everything.”
This instruction implies, unsurprisingly, prior calculation. And for all the conviction that Burnham was eager to display to Aitkenhead – for the NHS and for comprehensive schools, in particular – we should probably also assume, as is the way of serious politics, calculation on the part of Burnham. We might, therefore, wonder what the calculations of Burnham and Darling were intended to accomplish.
“No one had any idea,” Darling replied when asked whether anyone had anticipated the scale of the financial crisis that was still unfolding at the time of his interview. He warned that the economic climate of 2008 was “arguably the worst … in 60 years. And I think it’s going to be more profound and long-lasting than people thought.”
This remains the weakest economy on record and, as Mark Carney noted last week in his first press conference in charge of the Bank of England, those records go back more than one hundred years.
This speaks amply of Darling’s prescience. We might wonder whether so many would now blame Labour for the state of the economy if we’d done a better job in 2008 of getting across what Darling’s interview sought to communicate: we’re being hit by a unprecedented, global shock, which we must travel a long, hard road to recover from.
Darling was doing what Labour does at our best: being honest with the country about the scale of the challenges that confront us and providing leadership to meet them. He was, however, rewarded with “the forces of hell” from Gordon Brown’s operation next door. Presumably, they either didn’t accept that things were as bleak as Darling contended (but Carney’s assessment bears out Darling’s judgment) or reasoned that to acknowledge as much would reflect badly on Labour (but while reality can’t be denied, as Bryant discovered, it can be explained, and better in terms of the inefficiencies of global capitalism than the Labour government).
When this crisis struck, as John Kay has lamented, the political left offered no diagnosis or new ideas, and it gained no electoral advantage. Perhaps we lost, as Burnham puts it, the art of thinking bigger. Yet Burnham’s big idea of integrating health and social care policy is not party policy. But he’s “saying to Ed [Miliband], I will give you an NHS policy that is “one nation” to its core”. Whether Miliband would prefer him to do so via the pages of the Guardian is a moot point.
While Miliband is reported to be considering moving Stephen Twigg from the shadow education brief, Burnham more readily regrets the last government’s support for academy schools than makes peace with this government’s “free schools”. This is a quite different position from that of Andrew Adonis, for example. Where Adonis and Burnham would probably agree, though, is on the importance of apprenticeships.
“It is One Nation Labour’s duty,” Adonis has written, “to act on apprenticeships with the boldness and passion we demonstrated in the creation of academies to replace failing comprehensives.” As with Burnham’s proposed integration of health and social care, we find Labour politicians attach the term One Nation for special emphasis.
It’s surprising, consequently, that it doesn’t appear in Andrew Gwynne’s recent blog calling for the party to get behind Miliband. It remains to be seen whether it will appear in a forthcoming book by Michael Meacher that argues for a capital gains tax on the super-rich and directing funds from quantitative easing (QE) into public-private partnerships. As the housing market recovers, the highly unconventional policy of QE may quickly recede to yesterday’s debate.
Burnham has transitioned from new Labour vanguard to a more leftist position. When first an MP, he shared an office with James Purnell, who now prefers BBC digital policy to the humdrum world of Labour politics, and seems on a trajectory to end up appropriating ideas from Meacher. But whether this is more about asserting his standing within the party, in advance both of an anticipated reshuffle and a potential leadership election at some stage, than the national leadership Darling sought can be debated.
What is clear, though, is that we need less chatter from assorted Labour voices as to the way ahead and more national leadership from Miliband. Calls for Darling to return to the frontbench show that ministers who confidently provide such honest leadership are reaffirmed in their internal party standing. In contrast, focusing primarily on internal standing, Burnham may reflect, fails even in its own terms.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist