Why are Labour frontbenchers openly disagreeing with each other?

Written by Dan Hodges on 3 March 2015 in Opinion
A recent low speed collision between Ed Balls and Andy Burnham is evidence of a major rupture in the shadow cabinet

At some point in the next few weeks the Labour party are going to unveil their election manifesto. There’s no getting around it. Parties standing for election have to give the voters some idea of what they intend to do if elected. It’s a quaint democratic tradition.

Last week we were given an interesting insight into just how Labour’s manifesto is shaping up. Or, more specifically, how it isn’t.

The catalyst was George Osborne’s announcement he intends to devolve £6 billion of NHS funding to Greater Manchester. The move was warmly welcomed by local politicians and health officials.

Dr Ranjit Gill, chief clinical officer of Stockport Clinical Commissioning Group, told the Manchester Evening news, “this fits our plans like a key in a lock…the deal will be really good for patients in Greater Manchester and will help us join up NHS care with social care for the first time”. Manchester Labour council leader Sir Richard Leese said agreed. “What we will have is a joining-up of the care functions of local authorities with the health functions of the NHS. Through that we will be able to give patients and potential patients in Greater Manchester a far better service”. A poll of Manchester Evening News readers found two thirds backed the proposal.

But what do they know? According to Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, not very much. The deal would “cause a two-tier service and challenge the notion of a National Health Service” he warned. This would create “a ‘swiss cheese’ effect…if I was health secretary I wouldn’t be offering this deal”.

All of which would have been embarrassing enough. Labour shadow ministers arguing openly with senior Labour council leaders three months from polling day is not a good look.

But it’s a better look than Labour shadow ministers disagreeing openly with each other. Which is precisely what happened a few hours later when Ed Balls was questioned about the plan. Appearing on Iain Dale’s LBC show, he was asked if he would roll out this type of NHS devolution across the country, if elected. “Yes”, he said, in a response that startled both his questioner and interviewer with its succinctness.

Internal Labour party disputes about regional NHS policy aren’t, of themselves, going to move any political markets. But this low speed collision between Balls and Burnham is still significant, and revealing.

For one thing, it underlines how Labour’s general election communications are still not battle-ready. It’s very rare to have two senior shadow ministers directly contradicting themselves in public. But coming a full two months into the launch of the long campaign, its indicative of broader and more fundamental strategic issues. “We’re a mess”  is how one senior Labour official described his party’s campaign planning.

Disagreements over policy are common - even within the tightest political operations. But this close to polling day they should have been resolved, or at least compartmentalized. Especially when the issue is one that goes to the heart of what is supposedly Labour’s “big vision”.

Last April Ed Miliband unveiled his plan to put city regions at the heart of his plan for economic regeneration. Involving the transfer of over £4 billion of centralized budgets, it was, he said “the biggest economic devolution of power to England's great towns and cities in a hundred years”.

This was not simply rhetoric, but the central plank upon which Labour’s whole policy offer is supposed to rest. “It’s supposed to be our answer to the fundamental question – what do you do as a party of the Left when there’s no money left”, said one shadow cabinet member.

But as last week showed, instead of providing the central plank of Labour’s policy offer, it’s this agenda that is now creating a major fissure within the shadow cabinet.  “The old divide between Left and Right is gone”, another shadow cabinet member told me, “the new divide is between the centralisers and the devolutionists”.

This divide was supposed to have been bridged during the course of Labour’s policy review. But in the end, the process was used as a device for shunting a number of really difficult decisions into the sidings. On one side of the divide are people like Hillary Benn, Jon Cruddas and Liz Kendall, who are in favor of much more regional and local autonomy. On the other are  Andy Burnham and Ed Miliband himself, who are said to be suspicious of this agenda, fearing it may leave them neutered in government. Ed Balls is said to drift between the two camps, instinctively attracted to this concept of “low cost radicalism”, but nervous of the implications of placing too much high-profile spending outside of his control.

“The problem with Andy and Ed – and Balls to an extent – is they’re all former special advisors”, said one MP. “They’re used to exercising power from the heart of the machine. It’s the old Brownite politics”.

It’s a problem Labour is running out of time to resolve. Although there’s always a lot of talk at election time about “who’s writing the manifesto”, the task is never delegated to one individual. “Who isn’t writing the manifesto”, one shadow cabinet member told me, “You’ve got Cruddas, Angela, Ed himself, Balls and his people, Torsten [Henricson Bell], Stewart [Wood], Harriet wants her say, even Axelrod is chipping in. The press always run round trying to find out “who’s the guy”. The truth is there’s 20 or 30 guys”.

Some time over the next couple of weeks the guys are going to have to make their minds up. Labour needs that manifesto. 


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