Labour leadership hopeful Andy Burnham picks up another couple of signatures. Photo: Getty
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Why we are backing Andy Burnham's bid to be Labour leader

Two new Labour MPs, Conor McGinn and Anna Turley, are supporting Andy Burnham for the Labour leadership.

Labour has a duty to get the choice right about who leads us.

We don’t owe this just to ourselves – our party, our activists, our members – but much more importantly we owe it to the people we represent and the ones we want to represent.

That’s why, as two newly elected Labour MPs, we don’t want to allow Labour’s opponents to frame the debate or the choice we make.

Because the choice isn’t just about the person who leads us. It’s about the party they lead.

And our worry is that false choices have started to present themselves. New versus old, modernisers versus traditionalists, the party versus the trade unions, business versus workers, north vs south, aspiration versus tacking inequality.

False choices designed to divide us and polarise the contest, something that is far more likely to limit the debate than the number of candidates who stand.

In 1997, 2001 and 2005, people didn't just vote for Labour because of our modernising approach to public service reform or because we were relaxed about people getting rich. They voted for smaller class sizes, lower waiting times, tax credits, the minimum wage and Sure Starts.

Clear offers for all sectors of society, from top to bottom, in a 'what are you going to do for me' world.

In 2015, in our respective constituencies, Labour won Redcar back with a 19% swing and increased the majority in St Helens North to over 17,000.

But our experience of the campaign was similar to many candidates who fought and, through no fault of their own, lost in Tory/Labour marginals.

It was clear to us that our manifesto resonated strongly with people who in 2010 felt Labour had forgotten them and was no longer on their side.

Many people were hit by the bedroom tax, or were on a low wage and zero hours contracts. But when campaigning in more affluent parts of our constituencies – not wealthy people, just people who were on a reasonable wage, worked hard and wanted to get on - we struggled when people asked ‘but what are you going to do for me?’.

We looked down at our list of pledges which said we would clobber the richest and look after the poorest, but had almost nothing to say about everyone else.

Our view is that isn’t a zero sum game to care about the disadvantaged, to want to end child poverty, to support the most vulnerable, and tackle the excesses of inequality, yet at the same time to build a society of opportunity and aspiration, supporting business and wealth creation and an economy that means everyone can get on. There’s no incompatibility between caring about your community and wanting people in it to be successful.

That’s why we are supporting Andy Burnham to be the next Labour leader, because we think he brings the best of a modernising, radical vision for a successful, better Britain whilst ensuring that we are a country where everyone matters and no one gets left behind.

Because we cannot limit ourselves to a core vote strategy for any sector. No matter how divided this nation becomes over the next 5 years – socially, geographically, economically; we have to ensure we have an offer for everyone. But that also means no flip-side of the core vote strategy. We can’t have a reverse situation of 2015 in 2020, with people campaigning in the South East feeling armed with offers, but working class voters - themselves aspirational and ambitious - failing to see the Labour Party as their party too.

Most of all, we think Andy is the strongest candidate for Prime Minister who understands the scale of the challenge and is up to the task of being Labour leader from day one.

He can bring people together to deliver the big changes that Labour needs. He has the vision and courage to be bold in tackling the big challenges we face, as we have already seen on the EU referendum and immigration.

We cannot have more of the same. But neither can we have our offer for 2020 being caricatured as a back-to-the-future vision that doesn’t understand why we lost in 2010, never mind 2015. We won’t win over the voters we lost, or failed to gain, by being a poor imitation of the Tories.

That’s the lesson of New Labour: we don’t have to be like Tories, we have to be different to and better than them. And we are at our best when we have something to offer everyone. To do that we must speak to the country. Andy Burnham is the man to lead us in that conversation, and then matching his words with action to win again for Labour in 2020.

Conor McGinn is Labour MP for St Helens North, and Anna Turley is Labour MP for Redcar. Both are new MPs.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.