Interview: Andy Burnham

Andy Burnham on his northern roots, New Labour's legacy and his Cambridge 'rude awakening'.
Andy Burnham on his northern roots, New Labour's legacy and his Cambridge 'rude awakening'.

Andy Burnham talks to about his northern roots, New Labour's legacy and his Cambridge 'rude awakening'.

By Alex Stevenson

It doesn't take long for Andy Burnham to take politics back to his roots. "Whenever I heard Tories talking about Broken Britain for me it really rankled because broken Britain was the north-west in which I grew up in the 80s and 90s," he says. This is from the very first answer he gives, sitting perched on the edge of an armchair in his impressively empty parliamentary office. It's the perfect space to be drawn to the bigger picture, away from the factional day-to-day squabbles of party politics.

There is a sense this is where Burnham is most comfortable. His campaign, now reaching its closing stages as the race narrows to the two Milibands, appears focused on rescuing Burnham's big idea, 'aspirational socialism'. The shadow health secretary likes getting away from it all. His campaign headquarters is in Manchester, not London. This dovetails well with the anti-elitist rhetoric which has dominated his campaign, a suspicion that those in the powerful circles in London are far removed from the everyday life lived by millions. I point out he's quickly fallen back to discussing his background. The denial is only half-convincing.

"I've never called myself the northern candidate - but I do talk from my experience, always," he says.

"Politics is suffering from a sense that people read everything off a pager, a script, or drawn from a very narrow social caste, a small elite. What motivates me very much comes from my life experience."

This is where Burnham's passion lies: his politics is seen through a prism of disadvantage shaped by his own youth. It's not hard to see how this process took place. Asked about the Labour leadership candidates' Oxbridge experience, Burnham talks about the surprise he felt on arriving in Cambridge.

"For me, arriving at Cambridge was the biggest culture shock I've ever had in my life.

"Seeing for the first time young people from different backgrounds that produced overwhelming self-confidence of the like of which I've never seen before was disorientating at first."

In Burnham's eyes these were the children of the privileged, whose self-assurance stemmed from their parents' own affluence. Their attitude reflects Britain's bigger problems, Burnham believes. His rhetoric revolves around social mobility - combating postcode lotteries to provide a fairer spread of "health, wealth and life chances". What's revealing is the way he goes about painting the wider picture.

"I've spoken about it in terms of young people today," he says. "They probably face it more than any generation before. This culture of unpaid work in the workplace, where you've got to be in the know, have well-connected parents... for me, that is very much the modern workplace. You've got to be able to work for free. That mobility is an ever decreasing social circle that's got a grip on the world."

Burnham says his own parents predicted "doors will just open for you" because of his time at Cambridge. It is tempting to point out he is running to be the leader of the opposition, not a bad place to be at 40. But he is quick to say he suffered a "rude awakening" of his own after leaving university, being out of a job for six months.

"People I was at university with sailed off into Fleet Street and the City. The difference was the contacts of their family."

Politicians often become tediously repetitive when it comes to relating their beliefs to their background - look no further than Gordon Brown's tiresome 'son of the manse' talk for that. It's different with Burnham, whose patter rings true. He is, perhaps, the least artificial of the five leadership candidates.

An excess of loyalty?

Yet the need for caution remains. The vast majority of Burnham's working life has been spent in politics, culminating in his three years in Gordon Brown's Cabinet. Like the other candidates his attitude towards New Labour has fallen under the microscope. However much its protagonists would like this election to be about the future, attitudes towards the overshadowing 13 years of government remain vital. How 'New Labour' is Andy Burnham?

As you might expect of a man who stuck with Brown to the end, he finds it difficult to break free of collective responsibility even when it comes to some of New Labour's most divisive policies. He refuses to give ground on Iraq, despite admitting he has "agonised" about the 2003 invasion. The phrase 'furrowed brow' is never more apt as he talks about the "real grief" he has suffered over the lack of post-conflict planning. "But in terms of the decision - why we took it and were the reasons good and sound ones - yes they were, and do I stand by it?" His lips are pursed, his eyebrows raised, he nods carefully. "Yes, I do."

On identity cards - a controversy which he had a hand in developing during his time as a Home Office minister - he is utterly unrepentant. Suddenly, he launches on to the offensive. "I'm disappointed when I hear Ed Miliband... saying this illustrated our disconnection," he says. "I really don't agree with that at all, in fact."

What's interesting is the way he positions himself on the issue. "I speak for mainstream Labour. Not mainstream Labour members, necessarily, but the average Labour voter." A curious distinction, but one he sticks to. "I still think if you asked the average mainstream Labour voter today if they supported ID cards they'd say 'yes they do'."

That may be true. But is this really the man to win the next general election? Burnham's disappointment appears to date from May 6th. He blames the manifesto (written by Ed Miliband) for lacking ideas which would have "lifted Labour hearts". This frustration is married to resentment at Labour's reluctance to champion the National Care Service, Burnham's own baby at the Department of Health, by turning it into a major issue. Four months later and his zeal remains undimmed. "It could be in this century what the NHS was for Labour in the last century," he says, sounding as if he is back on the campaign trail. "I was disappointed that we didn't seem as if we could put forward with the courage of our convictions something that was going to make life in this country better. It was disappointing to me that our manifesto lacked that vision and that confidence."

An emerging heavyweight

This disappointment proves Burnham has moved on. The attachment to his old ministerial lines is not a product of attachment to New Labour, but seems a reflex targeted against inconsistency. Love for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's project is trumped by his suspicion of the new establishment. "It became almost fawning in the face of powerful vested interests in the media and business," he says. "And so Labour, which for me must be about breaking down elites in any part of society, became perceived as constantly courting elites or going cap in hand to elites. That makes me distinctly uncomfortable." He loathed the "inner sanctum" aspect of New Labour, which felt "very London-centric at times".

There is a suggestion that, by doing so, Labour jettisoned the core values of its party membership in a bid to move to the middle ground. The impact, after 13 years in power, was that the party had become "frightened of its own shadow". That period should now be over, Burnham believes. "Labour needs to rediscover the courage of its convictions."

The Leigh MP has some striking ideas of his own to get the ball rolling. His campaign has seen proposals for a major reform of property tax, through the introduction of a land value tax which would replace stamp duty, council tax and inheritance tax. "Those taxes are in my view a barrier to aspiration," he says enthusiastically.

"A land value tax could be a much fairer tax that helps lower and middle income people. Labour's got to get back in the business of that sort of thinking."

And so we return to the trademark Burnham rhetoric about the haves and the have-nots, about a fight on behalf of the disadvantaged against the privileged few. I suggest even the prime minister will struggle to solve the generational headaches facing Britain in the next few years - the shortages of housing, the pensions headache, the lack of jobs. "It's not tricky at all," Burnham says defiantly, insisting positive changes can be made. The first step is acknowledging the inequalities. "People are having their cake and eating it... some of them have had it too good."

Leadership elections are about making an impact; there can be no doubting Burnham's bid has brought out his political personality. He appears to be in transition from a New Labour damp squib to a firebrand of the left - perfect preparation for a prominent role in the politics of opposition.


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