Andy Burnham’s Shameful Evil Tories Rhetoric

A contender for the British Labour Party’s leadership shamefully indulges in “evil Tories” stereotypes.

The British Labour Party's shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, attends a party in London, England, June 23
The British Labour Party’s shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, attends a party in London, England, June 23 (FT)

This blog remarked last month on the British Labour Party’s inclination to see the ruling Conservatives as cruel and uncaring. At the time, we criticized Stephen Timms, a Labour representative for East Ham, London, for accusing the government of ignoring child poverty when it simply decided that throwing more money at the problem wasn’t going to make it go away.

Lately, one of the party’s leadership contenders, Andy Burnham, has taken aim at the same politician Timms did: Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary for work and pensions.

Duncan Smith, a rightwinger who was briefly Conservative Party leader in the early 2000s, is “playing politics with the lives of vulnerable people,” according to Burnham. Worse, he is “terrorizing disabled people” by planning to overhaul their benefits.

Some 2.5 million now quality for the Employment and Support Allowance, a benefit for those ill or disabled. While the numbers of Britons on regular jobseekers’ allowance has nearly halved since the Conservatives took power in 2010, the number on Employment and Support Allowance has remained almost the same.

Duncan Smith believes this is due to a system that, as he puts it, “decides you are either capable of work or you are not. This needs to change. Things are rarely that simplistic.”

I want to look at changing it so that it is better geared toward helping to get people prepared for and into what work they may be capable of, rather than parking them beyond work.

It’s an approach you may disagree with. But to call it “terrorizing” is way over the line. The goal is to get people off benefits and into work. Shouldn’t the party of labor at least sympathize with that?

No one is proposing taking away benefits from those who need it. But neither should anyone be complacent if a benefits system puts 2.5 million people on state support for life. If there’s a way to get more people working, part-time or with some help from the government, surely that’s worth trying?

It’s not just the work and pensions secretary who has recently suffered Burnham’s incriminations. He also took Chancellor George Osborne to task because his father-in-law and former energy secretary, Lord David Howell, proposed fracking in what he described as the “desolate” northeast of England. “I think he wants to do something else beginning with ‘f’,” said Burnham. (Although it’s unclear why Osborne should be responsible for what the father of his wife had to say.)

It was Burnham playing to another stereotype. Not only do the Conservatives not care about poor people; being more popular in the south, they don’t care about the north of England either. No matter that one of Osborne’s pet projects is the “Northern Powerhouse,” a proposal to reinvigorate this very region.

Burnham’s evil-Tories rhetoric would perhaps be easier to swallow if it wasn’t so plainly hypocritical.

The man aspiring to lead the Labour Party told supporters that he has spent his “political life fighting the real enemy. I fought them every single day in the last Parliament. I’ve shown you I can do it. I’ve shown you I can take on these Bullingdon boys,” he said, referring to to all-male students’ dining club at Oxford University that Osborne and Prime Minister David Cameron were members of.

Burnham’s own career has hardly been less elitist though. He was educated at Britain’s other top university, Cambridge, and immediately went into politics after graduating, working as a parliamentary researcher and a special advisor. He first won his own seat in 2001 and has never worked a day in the private sector. Yet Burnham knows what life is like for ordinary people, unlike the out-of-touch Conservatives, right?

This is nasty politics and especially unbecoming of a candidate for the Labour Party leadership. (Even if Burnham will likely be defeated by the even more leftist Jeremy Corbyn.) The ability to recognize the good intentions of one’s political opponents is a hallmarks of civilized discourse — and of effective opposition. Labour is not going to win back the trust of Middle England by constantly reminding it how much they dislike the other party. Voters know they do. They just don’t think that in itself qualifies Labour for government.