Paul Linford: Why Alan Milburn should have kept his mouth shut

Journal columnist Paul Linford on why Labour's former health secretary was wrong to criticise his party's approach on the NHS

The Rt. Honourable Alan Milburn
The Rt. Honourable Alan Milburn

A few weeks before Christmas, I wrote a column lamenting a statement by the former Labour health secretary Alan Milburn that he would not be returning to frontline politics.

While his New Labour sympathies may not be to everyone’s taste, the one-time Darlington MP is one of a relatively small number of people in the party whose popular appeal extends beyond the ranks of its core supporters.

As such, I am not about to resile from the view that it would be beneficial for Labour if he – along with his fellow former health secretary Alan Johnson – were back in its top team in time for the forthcoming election battle.

But it has to be said that Mr Milburn’s latest intervention, questioning Labour’s approach to what is set to become the central issue in the campaign was, to put it mildly, less than helpful to his party.

Speaking on BBC Radio on Tuesday, he accused Labour of retreating into its “comfort zone” on the NHS and of running a “pale imitation” of its losing 1992 general election campaign.

“It would be a fatal mistake for Labour to go into this election looking as though it is the party that would better resource the NHS but not necessarily put its foot to the floor when it comes to reforming it,” he said.

“There is a risk that Labour’s position on the NHS becomes almost an emblem for Labour showing an unwillingness to lean into a difficult reform agenda.

“The biggest risk for Labour on health, and indeed more generally, is that we could look like we are sticking to our comfort zone but aren’t prepared to strike out into territory that the public know any party of government will have to strike out into.”

Now in the context of a general philosophical debate about the party’s overall direction, Mr Milburn may well have a point.

His comments amount to a restatement of the classic Blairite position that Labour should always seek to triangulate itself between its core supporters who want more funding for the NHS and its opponents who want to privatise it.

But with less than 100 days to go before polling day, the time for internal philosophical debates has passed and, by enabling the Tories to portray Labour as divided on its number one issue, Mr Milburn’s comments were no less than a gift horse to their opponents.

The reaction within the party - “Doesn’t he know there’s an election on?” said one MP – says it all.

For make no mistake, the future of the health service is what this election is really all about, and what, in historical terms, it will be remembered for.

Sure, the Tories will, as they always do, try to turn it into a contest about economic competence, and seek to portray the prospect of a Labour government as a “risk” to the incipient recovery.

But Labour under Ed Miliband is not an anti-austerity party like Syriza in Greece, and while the rhetoric may differ, the differences between the two parties on the economy essentially amount to tinkering around the edges.

Their differences over the health service are far more elemental – an ideological clash between a party that believes the market always knows best, and one that fears the unleashing of market mechanisms into the NHS will ultimately destroy it.

The really moot point at this election, the one that fundamentally divides the two parties, is what should happen to the Health and Social Care Act of 2012.

While the Act does not of itself provide for the privatisation of health care, it sets a route-map for a future in which most if not all services would be delivered by private providers.

Labour is pledging to repeal the Act, while a majority Tory government would almost certainly accelerate the process towards that future.

It is therefore not alarmist to suggest that by 2020 the NHS could have ceased to be a direct provider of health services altogether and become no more than an overarching brand under which those services are delivered.

In his anxiety to highlight the existential threat faced by the service, Mr Miliband has not himself been gaffe-free

Telling the BBC’s Nick Robinson that he planned to “weaponise” the NHS was a mistake that Tony Blair would never have made.

But if Mr Milburn believes anti-reform parties do not win elections, he should know that neither do divided ones.

The next time he is tempted to open his mouth on the subject, he would do well to remember that.

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