Andy Burnham is running a race that most believe is over. Like his rivals, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, the shadow health secretary is portrayed as having been crushed by the Corbyn juggernaut. The only question that remains is whether he stumbles over the line in second or third place.
But when I meet Burnham at his campaign HQ on Victoria Street, Westminster, he is unhesitatingly bullish. “It’s far from over. To be honest, it’s wide open,” he tells me. “I think the hype runs far and away above ordinary members. Labour Party members will form their own judgements in their own time and they’re not swayed, actually, by all of the media considerations. People have leapt to conclusions that, quite frankly, are some way away from what the ordinary members are thinking.” He adds: “There’s a huge amount of interest, which is a good thing, and Jeremy’s helped bring it to life. But there’s also a huge amount of people who are still weighing things up and are undecided. Absolutely all to play for.”
Should Corbyn win and fall before the general election in 2020, some have suggested that Burnham or Cooper could fill the void. But Burnham tells me that this leadership campaign will be his last. “I’m not planning to run again – this will be the second time. I think there’s only so many times you can put your case to the party.”
Some will doubt whether he will keep his word. Since his campaign began, Burnham has been accused of vacillation, flip-flopping and opportunism. He revealed that he had opposed the welfare reform bill at shadow cabinet, to the anger of his colleagues, before agreeing to abstain with the leadership. At a campaign event on the day we speak, he is heckled over his failure to vote against the legislation. Burnham tells me that had he done so, he could have “won this contest” but believes he made the right decision.
“I spoke out twice in shadow cabinet and people have now characterised what we did as simple abstention. But it wasn’t. In the last parliament when we put reasoned amendments down, the Tories would say ‘oh, they oppose the something bill’. Reasoned amendments were opposition because they said we decline to give the bill a second reading.
“It’s one of these things that because campaigns can be conducted in black and white on Twitter now, this gets lost. But I moved the party to a position of opposition. Now, it didn’t come all the way to where I wanted it but being a member of the shadow cabinet and being bound by collective responsibility, I, with good grace, had to accept that the party had moved towards my position. There’s no flip-flop at all. If people are saying I should have resigned and split the party, I could have done, possibly I would have won this contest if I’d done that. But it wouldn’t have been me, I’ve never put myself before the party, ever. I wasn’t prepared to do it just to win this contest.”
He also rejects the charge that he has veered from right to left, having openend his campaign with a pro-business speech at EY (Ernst & Young) before, one MP tells me, “becoming a prisoner of Corbyn”.
“Yes, you want a vision that Labour people can be inspired by. But you also have to constantly understand the reasons why we lost the last election and one of them was a feeling among the business community that we were actively against their interests, there’s nothing inconsistent about that, I’ve said that all the way through this campaign.”
Having avoided attacks on Corbyn earlier in the race, Burnham now gives a lengthy account of his differences with the left-winger, including the EU, Nato membership and the economy.
“On Europe, he’s making a mistake by being ambivalent about whether or not our interests lie in or out. We are a year away from a referendum that will be a definitive moment in British politics, it will set politics for a generation. I don’t think this is the time for equivocation, it’s a time to be clear about how Labour would fight that referendum.
“The idea that we can go into more of an experimental phase where we’re debating policy positions, we just haven’t got that time. My sense going round the members’ meetings is that the centre of gravity in our party is as a pro-European party and we need to just get on with the job of making a positive case for remaining in Europe. In fact, the pro-European cause needs us because the Liberals’ voice is almost non-existent now, the Greens’ likewise. We are the party that people will look to to advance the pro-European case.
“On defence, with everything that is going on in the world with the instability that we see, I would say now is not the time to be proposing breaking old alliances, particularly leaving Nato, I don’t think that would be right for a leader of the Labour Party to be advancing that.
“That would be a position that most people in the Labour Party wouldn’t support. If you’re serious about government you have got to be a party that puts national security at the top of your list of priorities and I just don’t think we know about the future to be able say Britain can now go it alone.
“And then of course on the economy, we need to be credible, we need to win back people’s trust because we didn’t have it last time … So on all of these issues, there are differences. I began the interview by responding to the positives that Jeremy has brought to the campaign but there are big policy differences, let’s make no mistake about that. They’re not on issues of fringe interest, they are on absolutely crucial issues. This is where people will make their decision when they come to vote.”
He adds, however, that there is “some basis for agreement” on railway renationalisation (“although I’d go about it a different way”), university education (both have pledged to abolish fees, though Burnham favours a graduate tax) and housing. He continues: “But also I praise the other candidates, I think Liz has had fantastic things to say about devolution and whatever the outcome, the Labour Party should embrace the most radical version of devolution as part of its story about the reform of public services.” There is no unprompted praise for Cooper, with whom he has fiercely clashed in recent weeks.
It is on the subject of education that Burnham speaks most passionately during our conversation. He has vowed to phase out academies and free schools, replacing them with comprehensives under local authority supervision.
“I’ve always had quite a big difference, not just with the Tories but with, let’s say, the modernisers on our side. I believe that comprehensive education and its values should be as intrinsic to the values of the Labour Party as the National Health Service. The day we called comprehensives ‘bog-standard’ was a sad day for me as a product of that system. I believe the principles are what we should embrace, we shouldn’t be breaking the school system up for some, not others. It’s not something that I believe in at all and I also think schools should be locally accountable.”
He continues: “This is about 21st century comprehensive education, I feel Labour’s avoided the c-word for quite a long time, it’s been ashamed to talk about it. Well, not any more. As leader I would talk about it all the time, it’s something to be proud of, it’s the right principle for our education system.”
Among MPs, Burnham is rumoured to be in line to become shadow chancellor if Corbyn wins. But he insists that he has given no thought to his likely position.
“That kind of implies that you think I’m planning to lose and I’m not, I’m planning to win. I’m thinking about my own. I will serve Labour in whichever way I can. I’m making no plans other than to be Labour Party leader come 13 September.”
Implicitly contrasting himself with Corbyn, he asserts that only he could unite the party. “Of the candidates, I am the one that can unite Labour, partly because of the way I’ve conducted this campaign, partly because of the way I’ve acted in putting the party first. Yes, coming out of that welfare debate in the summer, it does mean that I can turn round to the Labour Party on 13 September and say ‘I have always shown loyalty, therefore I now ask for it back’.
“And because of that, I think I’m entitled to get it back. Others may struggle to get that because MPs will be able to say ‘you didn’t do this’. I’ve always put the party first, I’ve always believed that unity is strength and because of that I believe I can unite Labour coming out of this.”
The bookies, the pundits and most Labour MPs have called it already. But Burnham concludes: “I’m the right person at the right time. I’m planning to win, I’m playing to win.”