2000s >> 2009 >> no-1261-september-2009

Greasy Pole: Alan Milburn – Days of Despair

The aftermath of polling in the general election will be a stressful, disorientating time for us as we struggle to adjust to the loss of so many of those we have loved for their readiness to turn back on their promises and distort hard facts. Particularly to be mourned in this way is the Right Honourable Alan Milburn, ex-Secretary of State for Health and Member of Parliament for Darlington. Milburn will not suffer the predicted humiliation at the polls because he announced in June that he would not be standing for Parliament again after a career, notable even among MPs, for its labyrinthine application of the arts of politics. As a child in the little County Durham town of Tow Law, once dependent on its iron works and its coal mines until it was devastated in the slumps of the 1970s and 1980s, he never knew his father and was cared for by his mother. From that – often unpromising – start he blossomed into one of the highest paid Labour MPs with a six figure income from his “extensive outside business interests” (which is perhaps what he meant when he told his constituency Labour Party that he was resigning the seat to give him “the time to pursue challenges other than politics”)

Haze of Dope

“Challenge” is a word too easily used by politicians – especially those who have something awful to disguise. For Milburn, it has been a varying concept, as became obvious when he left Tow Law for the wide, hard world where words mean what the user needs them to, for as long as is useful. He went to study history at Lancaster University (not then feared for any rigorous application in its standards of scholarship). His next challenge was to try for a Ph.D at the rather more expectant Newcastle but this proved beyond his powers of endurance and he gave up – which he ascribes not to any lack of tenacity on his part but to his aversion to studying on his own. So in his twenties he could be found, appropriately shaggy and bearded, jointly running a left-wing bookshop in Newcastle. This hive of delusion advertised itself under the name Days of Hope which was popularly translated as the Haze of Dope.

Declaring himself to be a Marxist or a Trotskyist according to which was the more challenging in the circumstances, Milburn became active in CND and helped run a campaign to save the doomed shipyards of Sunderland. Applying the kind of insidious skills to prove later so useful in the jungle of Westminster, Milburn oozed charm and a consummate ability to exploit the attention of the media. Perhaps he and the other campaigners – not to mention the desperate shipyard workers – were impressed by all of this; if so they overlooked the fact that their opponents could use similar, but more cutting and decisive, methods. Bankers in the City at first offered the workers reason for hope but then abruptly withdrew. Prospective buyers from abroad turned out to be nothing of the kind. The bitter confusion of doubt was finally settled on 7 December 1988 when the Tory minister Tony Newton told the Commons that the yards would close – “reluctantly, with great regret” he said but then he would, wouldn’t he. Days of Hope it was not.


This episode might have been instructive for Milburn as an example of how capitalism operates, producing wealth such as ships not as a favour to human beings but as a means of profit for a minority class, so that employment is not a social service but the imposition of wage slavery. This system works in disregard of someone like Milburn and his delusional ability to charm and manipulate. Faced with this cruel reality he chose to blame the failure to defend the shipyards onto his lack of influence, which he would remedy by joining the Labour Party. Moving up the Greasy Pole, from trade union official to MP to junior minister to a seat in the Cabinet he used his “influence” in ways which dismayed many people who were unwise enough to have believed in him; among other labours he oversaw energetic privatisation of Labour’s sacred state health service. Stolidly he supported the war on Iraq, the replacement of Trident, student tuition fees… In this way he earned the recommendation of “leadership material” from the embittered bruiser Charles Clarke but whether this was helpful is a matter for doubt.

Whatever theories Milburn may have spouted to the bookworms of Haze of Dope about influence rightfully stemming from the democratic decisions of the people did not prevent him, after he resigned from being in charge of the Department of Health, taking a £30,000 a year job as consultant to Bridgenorth Capital – a venture capital firm with big interests in the financing of private health companies breaking into the NHS. Notable among these was Alliance Medical which in June 2004, just a year after Milburn had left the Department of Health, was awarded a £95 million contract to supply and operate 12 mobile scanners to the NHS over five years. This nice little earner was signed up to by John Hutton, Milburn’s successor at Health, at a time when many scanners were lying idle because the NHS Trusts could not afford to run them, forcing some patients to travel as much as 20 miles for a scan. A year later the whole scheme was being denounced by doctors as a “disaster” and panicky Labour officials were trying to stop MP Kevin Jones asking questions about it.

Social Mobility

Milburn’s last fling, before he leaves Parliament in time to evade the ban on MPs holding other jobs, was to chair the grandly titled commission on social mobility, which purported to investigate, and make proposals about, the chances of improving a person’s life prospects. To the customary media hysteria, the commission concluded that a person’s “social mobility” was related to their level of poverty. There is a wealth of evidence which reaches the same conclusion – about education, health, ambition… So what was the point of yet another dead-end enquiry into the ravages of this abominable social system? To provide a discredited Labour leader with the illusory comfort of “influence”?


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