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Last Updated: Monday, 13 May, 2002, 07:53 GMT 08:53 UK
Milburn's radical days

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online

"Alan wasn't interested in the Labour Party at all - he wanted to save the world."

Milburn was "never a rabble rouser"
That's how veteran trade unionist Alec McFadden remembers the young Alan Milburn.

Mr McFadden first met the future health secretary when Milburn was a PHD student in Newcastle.

He remembers a highly intelligent young man committed to nuclear disarmament and "world peace," a bearded idealist with little time for party politics.

Becoming an MP - let alone a cabinet minister - was, according to Mr McFadden, far from his young friend's mind.

Health service

Ironically, given his future role as the chief promoter of the private finance initiative, Milburn was also a fierce opponent of the "contracting out" of NHS services.
Alan has said it would be foolhardy to be in total opposition to Mr Blair
Alec McFadden

"I remember marching across the Tyne Bridge with Alan. It must have been the 40th anniversary of the health service," Mr McFadden recalls.

"It was a bitterly cold night and we were marching with all the nurses and health service workers.

"We all wore a badge at the time, which said: "Public it's ours, private it's theirs" and that really summed up our attitude."

'Getting his round in'

Mr McFadden, who went on to become North West President of the TUC, first ran into Mr Milburn in 1979 when he came into his office looking for welfare advice.

Within months, the future health secretary had abandoned his PHD thesis into the roots of radicalism in the North East and thrown himself into local activism.

He got a job as a 20 a week sales assistant at a Marxist bookshop, Days of Hope, which was known locally as Haze of Dope.

Most evenings would find Mr Milburn at CND meetings around Tyneside, often walking miles to save on bus fare, or debating revolutionary politics in the local pub.

"Alan was hard up but he would rather stay in than come to the pub with no money," Mr McFadden says.

"He always insisted on getting his round in."

In 1981, at the age of 23, Mr Milburn married Mo O'Toole at Newcastle's Civic Centre.

Mr McFadden was his best man.

'Safety pins'

"It wasn't a very grand affair," he recalls.

"Alan could only afford one pair of trousers and the seams split.

"He actually got married with safety pins holding the seams of his trousers together."

The Tyne Bridge
Newcastle suffered hard times in the 1980s

The North-East bore the brunt of Thatcherite economic reforms in the 1980s and there was no shortage of causes for young socialists to fight.

From Consett steelworks to the battle to save Sunderland shipbuilders, Mr Milburn was in the thick of it.

But, Mr McFadden says, he was never a rabble-rouser. He preferred to remain in the background, taking it all in.

'Transparent'

His skill with the media was also apparent from an early stage.

"Alan was always very good with the media.

I think he would be more left wing if he had the choice
"He had that smile, which I now think isn't as nice as it used to be. It's a bit transparent," Mr McFadden says.

In 1983, Mr Milburn joined the Labour Party after becoming involved in the unsuccessful campaign to oust the then Newcastle Central Tory MP Piers Merchant.

But the real turning point in Mr Milburn's career was when he became editor of a trade union-sponsored tabloid newspaper, Rostrum.

Health service

"Alan was a brilliant editor. I think he could have become a top international journalist if he'd wanted," Mr McFadden recalls.

"I think this was when he really started to think he might have a future in politics. He shaved off his beard and cut his hair."

The paper enhanced Milburn's reputation within the north-east trade union movement.

"Everyone had a lot of time for the paper and everyone knew Alan," Mr McFadden adds.

'Astounded'

By this time, Mr Milburn had landed a job with the county council-backed Trade Union Studies Information Unit.

Alan Milburn
Milburn has quit the government to spend more time with family

From that point, Mr McFadden saw less of Mr Milburn.

He helped his old friend secure the Labour nomination for Darlington in 1990, ahead of old Labour stalwart Ossie O'Brien.

But the two drifted apart after Mr Milburn won the Tory marginal in 1992.

He accepts that as a lifelong communist, who has never been a member of the Labour Party, he would probably not be regarded as suitable company for a rising New Labour star.

But - despite opposing many of Labour's plans for the health service - Mr McFadden finds it hard to believe that his old friend has jettisoned all of his former beliefs.

Socialist beliefs

In interviews, Mr Milburn has dismissed many of his views from his early days as "crackers" - a suggestion that does not go down well with Mr McFadden.

Both he and Stevie Byers are behaving like managing directors
"He wouldn't say that," he insists.

"Alan knows right from wrong.

"He comes from a poor background and that shaped his socialism."

He remains convinced that beneath Mr Milburn's slick, Blairite exterior, a socialist heart still beats.

Blair 'patronage'

The last time Mr McFadden saw Mr Milburn the two got on well, even though the health secretary was "surrounded by minders".

"Alan has said it would be foolhardy to be in total opposition to Mr Blair," Mr McFadden says.

"He is carrying out a job. He is part of a collective. He doesn't have the right to choose for himself and decide policy.

"I think he would be more left wing if he had the choice."

He added: "I think inside him - when he sits down at the end of the day - he would probably prefer to do things in a different way."

'Management skills'

He has "done well" to make it into the higher echelons of the cabinet, but, Mr McFadden fears, "he has become an employer and he has an employers' mentality.

"Both he and Stevie Byers (another old mate) are behaving like managing directors.

"But neither of them are managing directors. They have no management skills.

"They should be giving political leadership."




SEE ALSO:
Milburn quits as health secretary
12 Jun 03  |  Politics


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