A tale of two very different Guardian interviews: Darling and Burnham

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


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14 Responses to “A tale of two very different Guardian interviews: Darling and Burnham”

  1. steve says:

    “we need less chatter”

    Goodness! I’ve not noticed any chatter at all and I don’t think Burnham’s contribution, even if you don’t like it, should be relegated to “chatter” status. It is more important than that – it is the most striking piece of thinking to emerge from Labour’s lazy Front Bench since 2010.

    Sure, you don’t like the message so you want the messenger to shut up. But a better approach would be to produce an improved alternative. And if you can’t do that, and I suspect you won’t be able to better Burnham’s proposals, then perhaps you’re the one who needs to shut up.

  2. Rallan says:

    “… doing what Labour does at our best: being honest with the country …”

    You are either joking or wildly deluded. If you went out into the country and polled people on this statement, how many do you think would say it’s true?

  3. I for one welcomed Burnham’s contribution. I suspect you are right that Ed Miliband may have preferred if policy discussions weren’t held through the medium of a national paper, however i like the fact that Burnham was forthright and honest in his thinking.
    Perhaps I am naive but I didn’t see this interview as positioning for a leadership challenge. I think it unfair that when the front-bench is quiet they are criticised for not being vocal and then when they proffer ideas they are accused of challenging the leadership (which I don’t think you did, but others have).
    I would like to see more MPs give interviews and offer genuine opinions and ideas. I would like to see more positive solutions to the problems that we face. The blog by Adonis that you link to is one such positive article. I don’t agree with his views on academies or free schools but the issue of apprenticeships and the lack of leadership shown by government departments on this is the type of issue that Labour shadow ministers should be shouting about wherever they can. See also http://www.alastaircampbell.org/blog/2013/08/13/labour-must-rebut-the-mess-we-inherited-to-expose-the-mess-the-tories-are-making/

  4. Another thought – perhaps the reason that shadow ministers are struggling to get the media message across is a lack of a media profile. I think i have seen more of Chuka Umuna and Stella Creasy on the TV than any other MP, with the exception of Ed M and maybe Harriet Harman. Alan Johnson, by contrast, is on TV more than Ed M.
    I would agree with the (seeming) consensus that it would be advantageous for Ed M to incorporate some more experienced politicians like Alistair Darling in a reshuffle.

  5. McCurry says:

    Sometimes, Jonathan, I wonder what party you joined. Labour saved the economy from the banking crisis. The Tories then froze the economy in time for three years. Yet you are compared Carney and Darling in a like for like basis and blaming Gordon Brown.

  6. McCurry, Dan, whichever you prefer,

    I feel there are various confusions here. I am sorry if I was unclear.

    First, I am not comparing Carney and Darling. I am simply using the statement of Carney to illustrate that Darling was right.

    Second, Brown evidently either didn’t think Darling was right or didn’t wish him to say as much. In any case, I tend to think that colleagues don’t deserve “the forces of hell”.

    I hope that helps.

    Best, Jonathan

  7. Steve,

    Thank you for this, especially the invitation to shut up. I often don’t know why I bother either.

    The thing is, though, I’m not in the shadow cabinet. If I were, I’d express any differences I may have with party policy there. That’s the way it is supposed to work. And for a reason. The alternative is that it becomes all too easy for Labour’s opponents to paint us as divided and uncertain.

    I’d say, for example, that there is a good chance that whoever is shadow education secretary next time Michael Gove faces his Labour opposite number, will be asked: Is what you are saying party policy on academies or what Andy Burnham has said? The shadow education secretary then either needs to dance on the head of a pin or disown Burnham. Either way, Gove can’t lose. All of this seems predictable. I imagine Burnham sees it coming.

    You might wonder, then, why he went ahead and said what he’s said anyway. Maybe he really, really believes it and just couldn’t, in good conscience, keep it to himself any longer. All this good stuff was simply bursting to get out. Maybe it wasn’t quite so bursting but he let out because he thought it would serve his own political interests. I note that you seem to think more highly of him and that Sunny Hundal has since written of him as a future Labour leader. Whatever exactly his game is, these would appear steps in the right direction.

    It is, nonetheless, his game – if it were just the party’s game, I’d have thought these points could have waited till the next shadow cabinet.

    Best, Jonathan

  8. Robin,

    Thank you.

    Please see response to Steve for why I am skeptical about shadow ministers publicly going against party policy.

    Couldn’t they just agree some lines privately and start hitting the government? There is, after all, a lot to hit.

    Best, Jonathan

  9. McCurry says:

    Jonathan, Apologies for the tone, I’m in a foul mood about Labour, although I’m probably not alone on that score.
    My view of Darling’s Aitkenhead interview is that it was unhelpful. He knew he was crossing his colleagues, which is OK if he wanted to achieve something, but all he did was cause Labour policy and communications to grind to a halt for several months, allowing the Tories to get their message across without contention.

    You congratulate Darling for telling us that the credit crunch was a big deal, as if he was unique in this insight. What was unique was that he went against Gordon Brown’s policy of intervention, and wanted to copy Osborne’s austerity, leaving us with a policy which was half way between. History has not been kind to this view.

    As for “the forces of hell”. This is a quote from Darling, attacking Gordon Brown and Ed Balls. What he means is that they disagreed. I’d say he should have got sacked.

    My point is that Labour was damaged by being divided. In some ways the division continued. Although Progress were correct for “In the Black Labour” they have been hawks for austerity ever since 2008. On this they were wrong.

    In other words, it’s all been a mess and Darling is part of that division. He is absolutely not the provider of clarity.

  10. steve says:

    @Jonathan Todd: “Sunny Hundal has since written of him as a future Labour leader.”

    So that’s what’s concerning you! The greatest plans of mice etc. Enough said – I understand now.

  11. Dan – No worries. It would certainly have been better if Darling and Brown could have ironed out any differences in private. As with Burnham and Milband now.

    Steve – Burnham for leader. Remember where you heard it first.

    Best, Jonathan

  12. swatantra says:

    In fact you heard ‘Burnham for Leader’ from me and the other 15% first in 2010.
    We still have 2 years grace to draft him in and stand an evens chance of winning in 2015. Ed must surely realise that the game is up?

  13. Renie Anjeh says:

    Dissapointed with Burnham. His leadership campaign was backed by Hazel Blears and David Blunkett, who created academies. He even backed Hazel Blears’ deputy leadership bid! He was a reforming minister who was behind many of the changes that Michael Meacher made. He is sopping to the soft left and if he is going to continue, Ed should consider putting him on the backbenches and keeping Twigg in place.

  14. swatantra says:

    From today’s Mirror …. ”If Mr Burnham’s supporters want to act, they must do it soon, however. Under Labour’s mechanism for deposing a leader, a nomination is required before the autumn conference, in just a month’s time, and it must be supported by 20 per cent of MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party.’
    I say lets start the ball rolling now.

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