Shadow health secretary and Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham speaks during the general election campaign. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Andy Burnham's centrist pitch shows he wants to defy Tory caricature

By adopting a pro-business message and admitting the deficit was too high,  the Labour leadership candidate has frustrated hopes he would turn left. 

When the Labour leadership race began, the Tories immediately identified Andy Burnham as the candidate they wanted to win. The hope was that he would merely be "Miliband with a prettier face" or even tilt leftwards. But Burnham's first speech of the campaign, delivered to business leaders at Ernst & Young, showed that he may not be the Labour leader of their dreams. In the symbolic location of the City of London, the shadow health secretary declared that the party had too often failed to tell business that "we value what you do – creating jobs and wealth." Entrepreneurs, he said, "will be as much our heroes as the nurse or the teacher", countering the impression of a party concerned with the public sector alone. 

In a passage reminiscent of the Tories' mantra that strong public services depend on a strong economy, he added: "Labour must always champion wealth creation, and show we understand that, if we want world-class public services, and if we want high-skill, high-wage jobs, then we must wholeheartedly support the businesses that create the revenue to pay for them." It was a signal that he would never deliver a speech in the mould of Miliband's 2011 "predators and producers" address.

He combined this attempt to reset Labour's relations with business with an admission that the deficit was too high in the years before the crash - answering the spending question that haunted Miliband in the final leaders' TV event. He criticised the party for entering the election "with business and the public unclear on how Labour will balance the books, or when we will do so." In an attempt to pre-empt Tory criticism of his past role as chief secretary of the Treasury from 2007-08, he noted that they had described the spending settlement he delivered as "tough". 

Burnham's policy-rich speech - he also promised to introduce a UCAS-style system for apprenticeships and urged the government to hold the EU referendum by autumn 2016 - also saw him define his personal history and character (something Miliband struggled to do). He was, he said, "the comprehensive lad who went to Cambridge and then into the cabinet". Miliband similarly attended a comprehensive but his north London upbringing and Marxist father meant he failed to avoid being framed as an effete metropolitan. Burnham, by contrast, was able to humbly present himself as "the son of a telephone engineer and a GP receptionist who moved heaven and earth to make sure my brothers and I would be the first in our family to go to university". 

His centrist pitch will make it harder for his Labour opponents to define him as the candidate of the left (a challenge for Yvette Cooper, who seeks to offer a third way between Burnham and the "Blairite" Liz Kendall) and for the Tories to do so. He may have socialist instincts on the NHS ("the public NHS is what works") and free schools (opposing their establishment in areas with surplus place) but then so do most of the public. 

Burnham's greatest hindrance remains his record of service in the last Labour government. While he will have to constantly rebut Tory attacks on his past, the post-2010 Kendall would be able to avoid them altogether. But by demonstrating early on that he has learned from the failure of Labour's economic message he has strengthened his candidacy. The real test, should he be elected, would be sustaining his centrist strategy. Just as successive Tory opposition leaders promised to modernise their party but tilted rightwards under pressure, so Burnham would face pressure to head left if his approach failed to deliver early results. But by signalling that he wants to "rebuild the broad coalition of voters that put us into power in 1997" he has, for now, defied Tory caricature. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue