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Editor’s blog Wednesday 29 September 2010: Burnham on NHS battles ahead

Andy Burnham’s speech this morning to the Labour Party conference was a belligerent little number. It could really have done without the extravagantly unfunny joke about Nick Clegg’s tie colour, riffing on ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree’.

He is pushing hard on the National Care Service concept, to be funded by a ‘care levy’ on wealth and property left after death. Expect interesting arguments to develop on this about inter-generational fairness - and property prices, the rise in which will drag many, many more families into this bracket (who are already being hit with a 40% inheritance tax demand, at what is not a great time for anybody).

Selling a new tax in the economic climate of 2014-15 may be quite an ask. We shall see.

Hugging the media a tad less closely
He echoed the lines in Mili-E’s speech yesterday, warning about media obsession: ”Thank God Nye Bevan wasn't the kind of man who worried about what the Daily Mail might say. If he was, we might never have had an NHS.
So, going forward, let’s worry a bit less about what the media might say and do what we know to be right”.

It is impossible to predict the media’s temperature in a few years’ time. The cuts have not even been announced yet, let alone introduced. There are probably further tax rises to come, and VAT has not yet risen to 20%.

The automatic anti-Labour hostility in most of the media of the 1980s may never return with the same vigour. Indeed, the lack of media support this spring still did not prevent a fairly badly-performing Labour government coming second and not being wiped out. The era of ‘It's The Sun Wot Won It’ may be fading.

But obituaries would be premature: the media remain important – remember the televised debates and Clegg’s boost.

Nevertheless, Labour are right to see that living in fear of the shadow of Paul Dacre led them to much idiotic policymaking and the appearance of activity in office. Striking the right balance and tone with the media will be a key challenge, if they want to win the next election.

Fight for your right to be the NHS party
Quoting Aneurin Bevan’s dictum about the NHS being ”a real piece of socialism”, Burnham went on to point out (rightly) that the White Paper’s plans for a huge top-down redisorganisation of the NHS were in neither the Conservative manifesto, nor in the Coalition Agreement.

He called for “stability” and ”to put these dangerous plans on hold”, citing the Commonwealth Fund’s appraisal of the NHS as among the best health systems in the world (and as all HPI readers well know, that’s all about what comparators you choose).

Burnham pushed aggressively at an envelope, referring to the 2-week cancer waiting targets and implicitly conflating it with other abolished targets. This is less-than-honest stuff. He knows that Health Minister Simon Burns clarified that the cancer target is being kept.

Naughty-naughty, Mr B! Surely that’s “the old politics”?

Loving managers
NHS managers got a much-needed dose of love, too - ”Tens of thousands of decent, hard-working PCT staff have been told they are simply expendable.
It's no way to treat loyal people who helped put the NHS back on its feet.
I tell them today that I value your contribution and the country should too”.

At some point, he’s going to be asked whether he would recreate the old NHS bureaucracy, of course.

He could have made much more of GPs’ emerging unwillingness to offer wholehearted support for their new leadership in commissioning, using only the slightly unfocused, “If the Royal College of GPs and the BMA can't support your plans, something is seriously wrong”. There was much more to be made of this quarter-hearted support from the very people whose involvement is central to the White Paper’s success.

The speech was spirited, and hit some of its goals (as Burnham himself did, in the eve-of-conference ‘media vs. MPs’ football match). He has announced his candidacy for the shadow cabinet elections.

Is Burnham the striker Labour needs?