Burnham sets the standard for Labour policy review

Written by: Neal Lawson on 31 January, 2013
Filed under Democracy

Few speeches by any politicians these days last as long as the vinegar smell from the chips wrappings that report them. But Andy Burnham made a really good speech last week – and a week on it deserves more attention – a lot more.

Here was a politician with an argument and a central proposition to make. He wasn’t making a speech for the sake of it, one full of facts, sound bites and attacks on the Tories, but with no central thread. It was speech with a spine, and the spine was care being built around people – and their physical, mental and social needs. Its focus was on prevention – causes and not just symptoms. In cash strapped times this makes sense – as one budget could be much more effectively applied to the whole person than the current wasted silos.

This upstream state – he didn’t call it that as Anna Coote at nef (the new economics foundation) does – is part of the future of a new state. He did talk about health and Wellbeing Boards – which roots health back in communities and could give the accountability factor which has been missing forever in the NHS. It would be re-integration in communities – not through a big bang, top down, the Minister knows best way. In this way it chimes with thinking that Compass and others are doing around education reforms that take us to a comprehensive local system. Everything in public services is pointing towards a revival of the local democratic state and the renewal of civil society.

This is seriously good stuff.  However, it’s not perfect.  Andy had little to say about other radical ideas such as co-production – the means by which workers and users can reinvent services, innovate and create unparalleled efficiencies.  Labour needs to do a lot more to recognise the role of workers and users as active citizens creating services  rather than passive consumers in a world where choice is bandied about but is impossible to deliver. And he didn’t take New Labour to task for unlocking the gates of privatization that the Tories are now gleefully pushing open.

These are important points – but they are just that; constructive criticisms of a text that sets out a direction of travel.  I wish every bit of the policy review started with such clarity. Could we have the same in education and the economy for example? And can we nationally use the examples of Labour in power already heading down this track like they are in Wales?  Otherwise, Labour doesn’t look as one, let alone the nation.

I picked up whispers that not everyone round the Shadow Cabinet table was happy with the speech.  Some prefer the clear red water of Labour being for the NHS and The Tories being against – i.e. don’t rock the boat with fancy-Dan new ideas. Tosh! The world is changing. The health challenges the country faced in 1948 are way different from today. Long term chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes – caused in no small part by a food industry getting fat on making us fat – are the new challenges – along with mental illness that rockets as a consequence of our social recession. We can’t wait for office to fall into our lap and hope we can make the right decisions on the weekend after the election. We need a road map now and an alliance of forces that will stand up to the corporate lobbying that is desperate to open the NHS up for more profit.

Sadly the speech got a bit lost because of the Europe debate. Andy and his colleagues now need to revisit it, sustain the argument, and develop the ideas and the alliances to make it happen.  And we need to help.