Alan Milburn: 'I admit there are people who don't support us the way they did, who have grave doubts'

The Monday Interview: Labour's policy and general election co-ordinator
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The Independent Online

Last August, Alan Milburn had a big decision to make: should he buy his first season ticket at Newcastle United, his long-standing ambition? When he met his close friend Stephen Byers, the former Cabinet minister, to discuss his dilemma, they didn't talk much about football. Mr Milburn's real decision was whether to return to the Cabinet only 15 months after he famously quit to spend more time with his family.

Last August, Alan Milburn had a big decision to make: should he buy his first season ticket at Newcastle United, his long-standing ambition? When he met his close friend Stephen Byers, the former Cabinet minister, to discuss his dilemma, they didn't talk much about football. Mr Milburn's real decision was whether to return to the Cabinet only 15 months after he famously quit to spend more time with his family.

Tony Blair had already asked him to come back; if he was going to say yes, it wouldn't be worth buying a Newcastle ticket. Politics would take precedence over family and footy; the following month, he was appointed Labour's policy and general election co-ordinator. Since then, Newcastle have done pretty well, and are still in two cups. But Mr Milburn, who has managed to get to only two games, has slipped down the politicians' league table, according to the Westminster grapevine.

Labour has had a difficult pre-election campaign. For the most part, the Tories have set the agenda. The buck has stopped at Mr Milburn, who has been getting the flak for what has been described as a lacklustre, faltering and even failing campaign.

Some friends suspect he made the wrong call last August. So did he regret not buying that ticket? "That is a very, very clever question. I have regretted not getting to more games," he replies.

Surely, in some private moments, he must have regretted taking on this job? "No, not really. I knew exactly what this was going to be like. That's why I thought so long and hard about it, and why I took a lot of persuading to do it. But Tony persuaded me.

"Sometimes it is very frustrating. You know you have got the right strategy. You don't necessarily get the credit for that. The trick in politics is to do what you believe in and to stick with it. This is not a game. It really matters. This is about the future of the country."

It is an open secret that a dark cloud has hung over Mr Milburn since he became Labour's election supremo - the brooding presence of Gordon Brown, who headed the party's campaigns in 1997 and 2001 and was bitterly disappointed to be sidelined by Mr Blair.

To make matters worse, Mr Milburn had already clashed with the Chancellor over his plans for foundation hospitals while he was Health Secretary. Since September, friends say, he has had to fight "two oppositions" - the Tories and the Brown camp.

There was a flurry of newspaper reports that the Chancellor would ride to the rescue of Labour's ailing campaign when he presented this month's Budget. There has also been speculation that Mr Brown is to be given a formal election role and that it would be Mr Milburn's turn to be sidelined. Mr Milburn says wearily: "You have just got to take all that stuff with a bucketload of salt." He perks up to quip: "We are overdosing on salt at the moment."

Although Mr Blair and Mr Brown have discussed a formal role for the Chancellor, it hasn't happened. "I don't think titles matter. What matters is that you have your big players out there leading the campaign. We are blessed with a strong leadership team. The economy is the anchor of the campaign. I promise you will see a lot of Gordon in the weeks to come. He is a big figure in the Labour Party, a commanding figure in the Government. We all want him to be playing, as he will be playing, a big and active part in the campaign."

Critics say we have not yet seen much of the "leadership team", that Mr Blair has been running a presidential-style campaign. This seems odd because Mr Milburn says his "biggest fear has always been that this would turn into a referendum on the Labour Party and not a choice between the Labour Party and the Conservatives".

Isn't Mr Blair's "masochism strategy", in which he is verbally assaulted by ordinary people in TV studios, in danger of making the election a referendum on him? "Tony has got to lead the campaign. Nobody better expresses what the modern Labour Party stands for, what the country wants," says Mr Milburn.

What would he tell a Labour-inclined reader of The Independent who cannot vote for Mr Blair because of Iraq? "Switch!" he laughs, meaning newspapers. He goes on: "I do understand that some people really feel that. Iraq has been a very divisive issue for the country. I sat in the Cabinet, I voted for it, I don't resile at all from what we did. I respect people who have a different view.

"Iraq is an important issue. But so is the future of the health service, a system of universal childcare, getting people into work, lifting people out of poverty, tackling the gross injustice of Africa, bringing peace to the Middle East. All I ask people to do is weigh up which party on these big issues of the day is best placed to tackle them and has the values to deal with them.

"In the end, politics in Britain comes down to a pretty straightforward choice. Nobody really believes that Charles Kennedy is going to be walking up Downing Street the day after polling day. People need to think whether they want Michael Howard or Tony Blair walking up Downing Street.

"There are too many people who think they can get a Labour government without having to vote for one. You can't. The only way to guarantee progressive values in government is to vote Labour.

"I freely admit that there are a group of people who don't support us in the way they did, who have grave reservations and grave doubts. But this election is a choice between values. The Tories have reverted to type. They are fighting a virulently right-wing campaign, playing on people's fears.

"This campaign is the last hurrah for Thatcherism. If you want to stop them getting in, you have got to vote against it. Their strategy is to win by the back door. We have got to get out every vote."

When he chairs press conferences, Mr Milburn flicks his pen between his thumb and fingers in a nervous twitch. On Friday, he was relaxed and confident, as he exploited the remarks by Howard Flight, the former Tory deputy chairman, suggesting the party would cut spending by more than it admits. It was as if a great burden - carrying the Labour campaign - had been lifted.

"I always thought - it might be unfashionable - that our campaign was in good shape because we are fighting on the fundamental issues people care about," he says. He insists there are two different campaigns, with Labour fighting on the economy and public services and the Tories running an opportunist campaign that flits from issue to issue. He adds: "You can't go through a campaign pretending you are one thing when you are another. You get found out. It used to happen to Labour." He says Mr Blair's third election was always going to be more difficult. "You are sailing more against the wind. In 1997, we had the wind in our sails. In 2001, people agreed we needed another four years. It is not like that now."

He admits Labour needs to do more than merely scare people into opposing the Tories, and needs a positive, forward-looking "offer" to explain why it needs a third term. His big idea, which he will spell out tomorrow, is for Labour to smash the glass ceiling of the class system which, he believes, has held people back for generations.

Mr Milburn wants others to enjoy the opportunities he did. The son of a single mother, he grew up in the coal mining town of Tow Law, Durham, and never knew his father. When he was 16, his mother married, and he moved from a tough Newcastle comprehensive to a better school in Stokesley, North Yorkshire, where he got three As at A-Level before going on to Lancaster University. "The idea of going to university hadn't even been on my horizon," he says. "I was very, very fortunate. But you shouldn't have to rely on luck. You should rely on merit, talent and ability. That is the sort of society I want to see."

If Labour wins, Mr Milburn will have another difficult decision: should he remain in the Cabinet, or return to his family and buy a Newcastle ticket? "I genuinely, genuinely, genuinely have not decided," he says, pointing out that there is an election to win first. "You put it off until you really need to make your mind up. I miss Ruth [his partner] and the kids [Joe,13 and Danny, eight] a lot. That is the hardest bit of it. To tell you the truth, it [his family] puts all the nonsense into perspective."

However, he does not look like a man whose appetite for politics been diminished by his the recent "nonsense." It seems he will not get that season ticket for a few years yet.


Born 27 January 1958

Education John Marlay School, Newcastle; Stokesley Comprehensive School; Lancaster University; Newcastle University


1984-90 Co-ordinator, Trade Union Studies Information Unit, Newcastle

1990-92 Senior business development officer, North Tyneside Council

1992 MP for Darlington

1995-96 Opposition spokesman on health

1996-97 Opposition spokesman, Treasury

1997-98 Health minister

1998-99 Chief Secretary to the Treasury

1999-2003 Health Secretary

June 2003 resigned from Cabinet

September 2004 Labour's policy and general election co-ordinator, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster