Ed Miliband is facing a backlash by Tony Blair supporters who have warned that his plans for the NHS risk playing into Tory hands and could lead to repeating the campaign mistakes of 1992 when Labour lost the general election.
In a sign of unease about Labour’s prospects, the former health secretary Alan Milburn said the party was running a pale imitation of its losing 1992 general election campaign, as it retreated to its comfort zone over the NHS.
Milburn’s remarks were echoed by his ally, the former cabinet minister Lord Hutton of Furness, who warned that Labour needed to do more to address the economy and highlight its achievements while in office.
Supporters of Miliband hit back as John Healey, the former shadow health secretary, who sits on Labour’s national executive committee, said that Milburn was wrong to claim the Labour leader was not embracing reform.
The row broke out as the Labour leadership marked the 100th day before the general election by highlighting the party’s plan to embark on a 10-year campaign to merge health and care services.
Miliband began the day with a speech in Salford in which he pledged to rescue the NHS “for years to come” before announcing that Labour would fund an extra 10,000 nurse training places. The £160m annual costs of that scheme, designed to reduce the need for agency nurses, would be paid for from the £2.5bn Time to Care NHS fund, funded in part by a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2m.
As Miliband finished his speech in Salford, Andy Burnham stood up at the King’s Fund, in London, to outline one of the key reforms at the heart of Labour’s plans for government – a 10-year plan to merge health and care services. In one key change Labour is to pledge an end to the “crude 15-minute slots” of care visits.
Burnham confirmed the Labour plan to repeal the Health and Social Care Act introduced by the former health secretary Andrew Lansley and pledged to end the “Tory market experiment in the NHS”. The “public NHS” would be cemented as the preferred provider.
The Miliband and Burnham speeches prompted Milburn to say that Labour would make a fatal mistake if it positioned itself as the party that would provide greater NHS funds without saying how it would introduce further reforms.
In an interview on The World at One, on Radio 4, Milburn warned of the dangers of repeating the mistakes of the 1992 election, when Neil Kinnock was defeated by John Major on the economy after running an emotional campaign on Tory threats to the NHS.
Milburn, a close ally of Tony Blair, said: “You’ve got a pale imitation actually of the 1992 general election campaign. Maybe it will have the same outcome, I don’t know. But 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.”
The remarks by Milburn, who served as health secretary under Blair from 1999-2003, were echoed by Hutton, who sat in Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s cabinets from 2005-2009.
Hutton, a health minister between 1998 and 2005, said: “I do agree with Alan on all of this. It is really important Labour doesn’t just have a policy that consists of just committing to spend more on the NHS without tackling some of the fundamental things that need to be fixed in the NHS – how it becomes efficient, how it can deliver better outcomes for patients. Alan was right to speak out and make clear that sorting the NHS is not just an issue about money. The NHS is going to need very significant reforms in the years ahead if it is going to continue to serve the public interest as best as it can.
“We should avoid a re-run [of 1992]. We can win the next election, we ought to win the next election. But we shouldn’t imagine that there aren’t some really difficult, hard choices to be made, not just about the economy, but also about the future shape of public services.
“Labour has got to talk about the economy and have a message about what it will do to keep the economy moving ahead. In part that’s about the next five years but is also about defending our record in government.”
Hutton took issue with the confirmation by Burnham that he would cement the “public NHS” as the preferred provider. He said: “I really don’t think that is where we should focus all our efforts – on another round of organisational change.”
But Healey challenged Milburn’s claim that Miliband and Burnham were not embracing reform. The former shadow cabinet minister said: “Alan Milburn is wrong. The 10-year plan is a big reform plan. Integration of health and social care was the big reform that we didn’t do in the last decade, including when Alan Milburn was health secretary, which we must do in the next decade.
“The second reason why he is wrong is that Labour is where the patients are, Labour is where the public is with the serious concerns they have about the future of the NHS and the way they see it going at present.”
Labour did receive some good news as a ComRes/ITV News poll confirmed that the NHS, where the party leads on trust, was seen as the most important issue by voters. The NHS, on 50%, is just ahead of immigration on 49%. But voters preferred David Cameron over Ed Miliband (55% to 45%) in a straight choice for prime minister.
The interventions by Milburn and Hutton echoed Blair’s recent warning that 2015 could bring an election “in which a traditional leftwing party competes with a traditional rightwing party, with the traditional result”.
Milburn, who served as health secretary under Blair from 1999-2003, told the BBC: “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. Look, reform is not easy. But the Labour party is not a conservative party – it should be about moving things forward, not preserving them in aspic.
“I think 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 in the end the public know any party of government will have to strike out into. [That] is to make some difficult changes and difficult choices.”
As Burnham claimed that the NHS was facing a downward spiral, the former health secretary Alan Johnson said political parties needed to be careful about their language on the NHS. Johnson, who served as health secretary under Gordon Brown from 2007-09, told the BBC: “There are risks and I know from my constituents that if you criticise the NHS in a way that the public believes is actually undermining it then you run a political risk.”
But Johnson, who was succeeded by Burnham, was supportive of the shadow health secretary. He added: “I don’t think Andy has fallen into that trap. Yes there is a danger. The benefit of having Andy there is he has been a health secretary.”
Liz Kendall, the shadow care minister, rejected Milburn’s criticism. Kendall, who served as special adviser to Patricia Hewitt during her time as health secretary from 2005-2007, told the BBC: “I have a great deal of respect for Alan Milburn. I really do. But I just think he is plain wrong on this issue. Andy today was very, very clear: doing more of the same won’t work. We need major reforms to reset our health and care services so they are fit for the 21st century and fit for dealing with very old, very frail people.”
Kendall dismissed suggestions by the Times columnist Rachel Sylvester that she was sympathetic to the Milburn criticism suggesting Labour was moving backwards on reforms. “It is not the right approach to put every single service out to tender every single time,” Kendall said. “The vast bulk of NHS services are, will and must, be provided by the NHS. That is what Simon Stevens [head of NHS England] says, that is what Andy Burnham and Ed Miliband and I think. To have the government’s approach, which is that every single service should go out to tender every single time, is a waste of time, money and effort.”