Then Health Secretary Andy Burnham addresses activists alongside Ed Miliband. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Image
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Andy Burnham thinks he is an outsider but he’s really just another member of the Guild

Burnham's populist pitch is disingenuous. In truth, he's part of what George Osborne calls the “guild” of professional politicians.

Andy Burnham has a bubble ­complex. On Radio 4’s World at One on 29 May, he said: “Some voters have come to see Labour as a metropolitan elite inside the Westminster bubble.”

On the vexed issue of extracting oil and gas from shale rock, Burnham said on 5 June: “Fracking is one of those issues that gets politics a bad name. It is being driven ahead at speed by people in the Westminster bubble with scant regard for the views of the communities most affected. This is why people are fed up with politics as usual and want change. I will bring that change and put communities first again.”

In a speech in Crewe on 15 June, he said: “For too long, education policy . . . has been stuck inside the Westminster bubble, where the vast majority of people went to private schools and university.”

On the Murnaghan show on Sky News on 21 June, he said: “Labour’s been trapped in the Westminster bubble for far too long.”

On the same day, in an interview in the Mail on Sunday, choosing a different metaphor, he said: “Labour looks like an elitist Westminster think tank talking in language that people don’t understand.”

What is Andy Burnham trying to tell us? What he is trying to tell us, I think, is that this long-time political insider self-identifies as an outsider. His populist pitch for the leadership seems to amount to little more than that he’s a pretty regular kind of guy who – because he went to a comprehensive school, likes football and speaks with a northern accent – has an instinctive gift for communication and, as he would put it, can talk in a language that people understand.

But this is disingenuous. As with Ed Miliband or Ed Balls, Burnham is, in effect, a member of what George Osborne calls the “guild” of professional politicians. Practically his whole career has been spent in and around Whitehall and Westminster. After graduating with a degree in English from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, he worked as a researcher for Tessa Jowell, shared an office with James Purnell and played for New Labour’s Demon Eyes football team. One senior Labour MP remembers him back then as a “good Blairite boy”, eager to please and very ambitious. Like the Miliband brothers, he was fast-tracked into a safe seat and then the cabinet. If he has a gift, it is for staying out of trouble and sensing the direction of travel. Once a Blairite, he has now repositioned on the populist left of the party, becoming the self-declared champion of the public sector, having also assiduously wooed the big unions, which are supporting his leadership bid.

No one who has met him doubts Burnham’s self-belief or determination to lead the party – he also contested the leadership in 2010, when he finished fourth in a contest of five behind the feuding Miliband brothers and Balls. What is in doubt is his intellectual capacity and character: does he have the will and courage to challenge the party and move it on to what Jim Murphy, the outgoing head of Scottish Labour, called in a speech last week “the hardest ground”?

In 1976, after Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister, the six contenders to replace him were Roy Jenkins, Jim Callaghan, Anthony Crosland, Tony Benn, Denis Healey and Michael Foot. How Labour yearns for figures of comparable stature today. And yet, in retrospect, that contest signified the end of an era just as Gordon Brown’s defeat would in 2010: the country was entering a new period of Conservative rule as the free-market right launched a counter-hegemonic assault on the postwar economic consensus, dividing and then splitting the Labour Party along the way.

This time around, Labour is unlikely to split but the abject election defeat has left its MPs demoralised – there’s been much muttering to the effect that there might have to be a second contest in 2018 if the new leader is perceived to be failing. Problematic, too, is the fragmentation of the left, with Labour having lost so many votes to the SNP, the Greens and Ukip. Worse still, Labour looks to have been decisively defeated in Scotland, just as the Tories were before them. The party’s struggles are not happening in isolation but are part of a larger trend: throughout Europe the mainstream social-democratic left is losing power and influence, most recently in Denmark. In this context, Burnham’s complaints about the “Westminster bubble” seem parochial and banal.

In his new book, The Road to Character, the New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that he has “lived a life of vague moral aspiration – vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose, while vaguely lacking a concrete moral vocabulary”.

Something similar could be said of Burnham. He knows what he wants and wants to be but his message is vague in the extreme. He believes he is a good man and the right man to lead Labour – and, by implication, Great Britain, one of the most powerful and distinguished nations on earth. But it’s not enough simply to want to succeed. You must have a concrete moral vocabulary and something distinctive to say, a guiding principle beyond a personal ambition to lead.

Brooks also suggests that, in recent times, we have shifted from a culture of self-­effacement to one of self-promotion. This is the age of the “Big Me”. One struggles to think of a profession more narcissistic than politics. And there’s a warning here for Andy Burnham as he talks up his talents as a plain speaker and communicator. He is the front-runner, the People’s Andy. Yet the danger for him is that when you peel back the outer layers of cliché – the grumbling about a “metropolitan elite inside a Westminster bubble” – there doesn’t seem much to behold beyond the sight of a man with a loud voice saying it has to be me.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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