The Greasy Pole column from the March 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
Hutton is a name which in its time has distinguished some famous personalities. There was that batsman at The Oval who amassed an innings which was then a record for a Test Match against Australia. Then there was the American heiress, a member of the Woolworth family, who revelled in drugs and alcohol while she amassed a total of seven husbands. And who had just $3,500 in 1979 when she died. Then what about John Matthew Patrick Hutton who was the Labour MP for Barrow and Furness in Cumbria, once noted for its shipyards and for the largest steelworks in the world but now looks out across the North Sea at one of the densest concentration of wind farms. In July 2010 he reached the heights of Baron Hutton of Furness. But not before he had told a TV political correspondent, in confidence, that if Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of his party, ever got to be Prime Minister it would be ‘a fucking disaster’.
A long term close friend and one-time flatmate of Hutton, who continued to share ideas including his contemptuous (although less abrasively worded) opinion of Gordon Brown, was Alan Milburn, the MP for Darlington, which was once busy until it was reduced to an ominously titled ‘area of re-generation’. Near to Darlington was Sedgefield where the MP was Tony Blair but this was unlikely to have been the sole cause of Milburn being an ardent Blairite. His Parliamentary career did not begin until April 1992 and was typical in the sense that he moved between a succession of ministries, perhaps impatient that he did not work his way further up the Greasy Pole. But it was crucial that in June 2003, on the very day of Prime Minister Blair imposing a ministerial reshuffle, Milburn resigned as Secretary of State for Health on the grounds that it got in the way of him keeping to his family commitments at his home in the North East. Except that being a devoted family man did not prevent him taking a number of posts as advisor or consultant to some large companies – for example Bridgepoint Capital, which includes Alliance Medical who were competing for contracts, often dealing in the Health Service.
In any case Milburn was back in the government in 2004 as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a title fancy enough to swaddle the fact that his objective was to design a super campaign for Labour in the coming election. He did not make the start in this task which was expected of him, which brings us back to Gordon Brown who took over the job with its opportunity to launch at Blair a heated, copulatory protest – in this case concerning a recent article in the Sunday Times by Milburn: ‘You put fucking Milburn up to it… this is Trotskyism! It’s fucking Trotskyism!’ Which was inaccurate as well as abusive to the memory of that cruelly discarded Bolshevik. After Labour’s next defeat, in the 2010 election, Milburn resigned from Parliament and took on, among other responsibilities, the job of advising the Conservative/LibDem coalition government on something officially called ‘social mobility’ – a phrase open to pretty well whatever interpretation its user desired (Milburn preferred ‘…to pursue challenges other than politics’).
To put all of this situation into perspective we have to begin with the fact that Milburn was born to a single mother in a small village in County Durham and grew up in Newcastle on Tyne where he went to school. Not a lot in that of promise about social mobility. At Lancaster University he was not among the most promising of students and when he left there he had become restless enough to cultivate the uniform hirsute style of protest, joining CND and – most memorably – earning £20 a week managing a small bookshop in Newcastle. It had a name designed to tempt anyone needing an accessible source of cannabis to also see if there was anything readable on the bookshelves. It was after taking various roles in the local Labour Party and trade unions that he was elected MP and it was appropriate for the New Statesman to warn that he was widely seen as ‘the epitome of Blairite centrism and moderation’. During his time as Secretary of State at the Department of Health he devoted himself to safeguarding what was being dubbed the ‘modernisation’ of the NHS, which entailed the development of private investment opportunities in health and brought about the closure of hospitals and other services, whether there was need for them or not, and pressure on the employment conditions of doctors and other workers in the Service.
And how has Milburn fared, among the most ambitious of the designers of these changes? There had been a time in 1988 when, in tune with his most assiduously promoted self-image, he was a leading light in a campaign to defend the jobs of the workers in the shipyards at Sunderland. And in 1990 when he was a Regional President of his trade union by the name Manufacturing Science and Finance. So he has fared well. Kept busy. Bridgepoint Capital is one of his multitude of interests now; it pays him £30,000 a year for his advice on their bidding for NHS work. Six months after he joined them a subsidiary won an NHS contract worth £16 million. With his second wife, who is a barrister, he set up a company under the name of AM Strategy, operating in media and consultancy contracts in relation to the NHS; in the year-end to March 2013 AM showed accounting profits of £1,357,131. And in May 2013 Milburn declared himself ‘delighted’ to be appointed as Chair of the Health Industry Oversight Board at PricewaterhouseCoopers – a company which he praised for its ‘strong opportunities’ for growth. He may well have had a similar response to the news that his old friend and fellow Labour front bencher Hutton had been appointed to the board of Circle Holdings, which also flourishes through its contracts with the NHS.
The adjustments and confusion offered by Milburn and Hutton have been essential in their attempts to crisis manage the chaos of capitalism. In the process they have been compelled to change, adjust or abandon what they once presented as enduringly basic principles. This entire episode has emphasised our role to carry through the authentic social progress so urgent to the world.