Don't cry for me, Andy Burnham. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham seems like a nice bloke - but I haven't a clue what he stands for

Andy Burnham's guiding principle seems to be that Andy Burnham should be leader of the Labour party, says Jonn Elledge.

I've never met Andy Burnham. I've only spoken to him once, six years ago, when I was a reporter and he was the newly appointed health secretary, then still widely seen as a Blairite. I don't remember much of that phone interview, but I clearly made quite an impact on him, as he later had a meeting with my colleague Tom and addressed him using my name throughout.

There are many people in public life who, whatever their politics, have reputations for being, basically, awful humans. Burnham isn't one of them. He is, by all accounts, unfailingly pleasant and courteous to his colleagues, his staff and everyone he comes across. The more I learn of him, the more he seems to be that rarest of things in politics, the genuinely nice man.

And yet, I would not trust him as far as I could throw an obese hippo (an animal, it should be said, that is far less slippery than Burnham himself). For all the horrors of the Labour leadership race, I am quietly delighted to see his bid quietly fade into irrelevance.

Until that race began, Burnham clearly had the most prominent public profile of the main contenders. As shadow health secretary he'd been a big figure on Ed Miliband's frontbench, making a series of blistering attacks on government health policy. In July 2014, he called for an end to NHS privatisation. In Janaury 2015, he warned that the coalition was pursuing "a toxic mixture of cuts and privatisation". Labour supporters may have been confused about what the party stood for under Ed Miliband - but one thing they were clear on was that Andy Burnham was opposed to NHS privatisation.

There was only one problem with this. Only one NHS hospital, Hinchingbrooke, has ever been handed over to a private provider, which then ran it for a profit (as good a definition of "NHS privatisation" as any). The process that led to this arrangement began in July 2009. The health secretary at the time was one Andy Burnham.

The man who in opposition has made his name opposing NHS privatisation is the only health secretary ever to privatise an NHS hospital.

Burnham's legion of supporters, of whom the most prominent, worryingly, is Dr Eoin Clarke, respond to this point by noting that the deal wasn't actually signed until November 2011. They note, too, that the Hinchingbrooke process began just weeks after Burnham came to the office, and that his signature policy as health secretary was to change the terms of the internal market so that NHS organisation became the "preferred provider" of services.

These things are true - but pointing them out feels like nitpicking the letter of the law to excuse a breach of its spirit. The process started on Burnham's watch, and by the time he left office there were no NHS providers left in the race. There is no reading of events in which he isn't largely responsible for the privatisation of Hinchingbrooke Hospital.

Even if he was bitterly opposed to privatisation, and was quietly raging against it throughout, there are no points in politics for inner beauty: what you do in office is de facto your policy. The absolute best case scenario here is that a man who has always been opposed to NHS privatisation wasn't strong enough to stop it, even when he was the secretary of state for health. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for his leadership ambitions.

Burnham has given us no reason to think that this the right reading of events, however. He has never, best I can tell, come up with a way of rationalising his actions as health secretary against his policies as shadow health secretary. He's addressed the contradiction by pretending that there isn't one. His entire leadership campaign has been built on the assumption that nobody will bother to Google what he was up to in 2009.

If this was a one off, it might be possible to excuse it, but this air of slipperiness follows Burnham like a bad smell. In June he called on the Labour party to vote against the government's welfare bill, pledged to vote against it, then abstained. His chosen line of attack against the George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” policy is to sneeringly point out that the north is not, currently, a powerhouse, which is true, but also the entire point of the exercise.

He talks endlessly about not being from inside the Westminster Bubble. But since he's a Cambridge graduate who became a parliamentary researcher at the age of 24, this just looks like code for "I have a northern accent". Time and again, Burnham’s actions are those of a man who assumes the rest of us are fools.

Slipperiness is not always a bad quality in a politician. Harold Wilson won four general elections, and left office at a time of his own choosing; and it is surely better to u-turn than to crash headfirst into a wall. So perhaps Burnham's problem isn't slipperiness, per se. Perhaps it's that he's so appallingly obvious about it.

Or perhaps it's that there's no sense that all this ducking and diving is serving some greater mission. Burnham brings to mind the quote widely attributed to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a leading figure in France's 1848 revolution: "There go my people. I must find out where they are going, so I can lead them."

I'm sure Andy Burnham is a nice man - decent, intelligent, humane. But the one solid principle he seems to have is that the leader of the Labour party should be Andy Burnham. It's not enough. That is why he will shortly lose another Labour leadership election.

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.

Show Hide image

Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.