Why we should choose Andy and not the romance of opposition

August 10, 2015 ,

I had the privilege in the final years of the last Labour Government to serve as one of its Ministers. Every day when I walked into the departments that I served in I remembered to recite something to myself: “In the 23 years that he served as an MP on not one day did Neil Kinnock do what I am able to do today – be a Labour Minister with the chance to further social justice.” I was acutely aware having spent the first 18 years of my adult life under the Tories, of what Neil had done to help rescue the Labour Party from possible political extinction or irrelevance.

In that time Margaret Thatcher and John Major had done huge damage to the fabric of society with rampant Toryism let loose by our failure as a Party to put forward a credible centre-left alternative brought on by the split in the party of the early 80s.

So I felt intensely the preciousness of the opportunity I had been given to serve in a Labour Government.

Of course most decisions you have to take as a Minister are not a simple choice between good and bad, or between progressive and reactionary options – often the choice is more like one between the unpalatable and the undesirable. My first decision in one of these jobs was to decide how £500m should be spent on new college buildings; a pleasant duty perhaps and one that arose out of Labour’s commitment to invest in education. Unfortunately the quango administering the programme had somehow managed to convince colleges that £5bn, not £500m, was going to be spent.  I had to go through the list of projects and decide who was, and who wasn’t going to get their new building.

Decisions like these are tough, but that is what being in power is about, taking tough decisions in the most progressive way possible. As ever the greatest pragmatic idealist of them all, Nye Bevan, put it best when he said: “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.”

In choosing the next Labour leader we should be looking for someone who recognises the priority of achieving power in order to bring about that change for the better. There is nothing romantic about being in opposition – certainly not for the millions of people who look to the Labour Party for a Government that will promote social justice and equality.

In my view the last Labour Government was wrong about Iraq and didn’t do enough to regulate the banks – but it moved the fulcrum of politics to the left in a way that some people seem to have forgotten. The minimum wage was never achieved by Hardie, Attlee, Wilson or Callaghan, but by Blair and Brown in the teeth of bitter Tory and Lib Dem opposition. Lack of investment in public services including schools and hospitals under the Tories was turned around by the Labour Government.

Even by the time of Gordon Brown’s premiership – George Osborne was still having to pledge to match Labour’s spending plans because of the case we had made in Government for the importance of investment in public services.

We are now seeing how the Tories are using their power to reverse that trend with an old style Tory blend of private affluence and public squalor. This is the cost of losing. That is why we can’t afford the luxury of long term opposition. We must decide we are going to win next time, and do what is best to achieve that.

I have respect for all my colleagues who have put themselves forward to be our leader. It takes guts to stand but it also takes strength to win. In making my choice of supporting Andy Burnham I am sure that we need neither rehashed Blairism with its failure to regulate financial markets and flawed foreign policy, or reconstituted Bennism with its command economy instincts and lack of broad electoral appeal.

Labour is best when we pursue that pragmatic idealism that Nye Bevan spoke about and put into practice with the creation of the NHS. Unfortunately the split over NHS dental charges in the early 1950s contributed to Labour losing power for 13 years, confirming a hard and fast rule of British politics; when political parties split they lose power for a generation, or forever.

There is an understandable hunger for change and something different which has helped boost the campaign of Jeremy Corbyn. I still remember the large crowds and romantic warmth we all felt when we chose Michael Foot as out leader in the early 1980s. But I repeat there is nothing romantic about opposition. It is a hard and thankless graft to be fought and struggled against, not an inevitable condition to be waited out in interminable internal debate until the socialist dawn inevitably arrives.

The former New York Governor, Mario Cuomo said, “we campaign in poetry but govern in prose.”  Yes we need vision and policies grounded in Labour’s values.  I believe the programme that Andy Burnham has proposed is one that all Labour supporters can support, but also one for which we can build wider appeal. But I also fear that the warm glow of summer some feel now about the prospect of electing a leader who has never desired to lead, may soon turn cold in the reality of the long hard journey back to power. That is why we should choose to win, and choose Andy Burnham.