Labour’s most experienced healthcare politician has been chosen as mayoral candidate for the area that is leading radical NHS change. Sounds perfect. Or is it?
Andy Burnham served as Health Secretary for just under a year, and resumed the shadow brief for another four. Throughout his Westminster career it has become the policy area, beyond Hillsborough, that has defined him. He has a deep understanding of the system, and the political challenges required to maintain patient safety while balancing budgets. This experience should make him an ideal candidate for the role of Greater Manchester Mayor, which he is overwhelming favourite to win, as the city-wide region assumes powers over health and social care spending.
Yet scratch beneath the surface and it isn’t quite the tailor-made fit as first imagined. In opposition he championed whole-person care as the means to integrate services across the health and social care sphere. Despite this being at the heart of Greater Manchester’s plans, he spent too much of his time in opposition fighting the Government’s competition reforms to set out the practical measures Labour would take to bring these services together.
When Devo Manc was first announced Burnham opposed the idea, saying it would lead to a fragmentation and ultimate breakup of the NHS. He seems to have cooled on this now he may be responsible for its implementation, yet his conviction still remains tepid over certain aspects.
However, underpinning this reluctance is a motivation to become a Labour politician in power. Labour’s fate at the next general election, whenever that may be, looks perilous unless the party undergoes ideological and presentational transformation. Alongside Sadiq Khan in London, Burnham has the opportunity to portray himself as an adept leader, capable of overseeing a high profile locality with a large budget. Securing the mayoralty would also conveniently divorce him from the turmoil currently engulfing the Shadow cabinet, without too much loss of face.
Burnham undoubtedly has the experience and local knowledge to be a successful Mayor, yet the barometer of his success will ultimately be linked to that of healthcare devolution. If he is to unleash the potential behind Manchester’s plans he must put his political idealism to one side and bring in the many partners that will be needed to make the £6bn integration project a success. That includes those from the private sector, whom he has sought to drive out of the system, and his Tory counterparts in central government.