Andy Burnham is his own man. Or so he asserts, repeatedly, during our interview on 23 June at his campaign HQ, a few streets over from the Houses of Parliament. He is keen to be seen as an independent thinker, a lone wolf: a break from Labour’s past.
“While I was loyal to Tony, loyal to Gordon, and loyal to Ed, I’m none of those people,” he says. “I am my own man. I have a take on politics that is different from theirs.”
As a serial frontbencher through the New Labour years – most notably serving as health secretary and chief secretary to the Treasury – and now in opposition, he could find the task of disassociating himself from his party’s recent history difficult. And that is just one complication in his pitch to be the next Labour leader. Burnham positioned himself as the “continuity candidate” when he ran for the same position in 2010. This time round he is standing as the “change candidate”.
Part of the change needed, he argues, is for Labour “to step out of Westminster think-tank mode”. His focus is on bursting that lingering cliché, “the Westminster bubble” – in which he feels his party has been floating for too long.
He leans across the empty, white table at his office, looking troubled. “This sense of us as a Westminster elite . . . not understanding the lives of people who have traditionally voted for us – that has to change.”
His northern vowels and easy manner seem a world away from the wonkish robots operating in Labour’s top tiers until recently. Coupled with his big hazel eyes and dark eyelashes – so often commented upon that he has a stock answer ready about them – they project the kind of warmth that so stubbornly evaded Ed Miliband. But Burnham worked as a special adviser before becoming an MP at the age of 31. He is very much a product of the Westminster system. How does he intend to overcome the contradiction?
“Yes, I’ve spent lots of time here,” he says. “But I’ve never bought in to the real in-crowd, if you like, in terms of those who spend their Saturdays at Fabian and Progress conferences. There’s nothing of an act here. I am who I am. I’ve never spent my weekends here ever since I’ve been an MP. I’ve always been back at home, going to the match – that’s me.”
He adds: “When I’ve been asked to show my loyalty, it’s never been to Westminster. The illustration of that is Hillsborough . . . The criticism I’d make of New Labour in that era in government, and I’m talking about not just Tony Blair, but Gordon Brown as well, was that they allowed themselves to get too close to vested interests in the media. So close that they couldn’t hear a city that has been loyal to Labour ever since anyone can remember crying injustice.”
His silver cufflinks glint above the Hillsborough charity band that rarely leaves his wrist. Burnham, who was born in Liverpool and represents Leigh, in Greater Manchester, successfully forced a second inquiry into the 1989 football stadium disaster when he was in Brown’s cabinet, after the matter had been dropped.
On the day of the tragedy he was 19 years old. Some of his friends, Liverpool supporters, were in the stands. Burnham says he is “bound up with it personally”. He sees standing up for Liverpool and for the victims’ families as his greatest political achievement.
“People felt for 20-plus years that they were treated as second-class: ‘Oh, the whingeing Scousers again,’” he says. His working-class origins shape his criticism of Labour. “There’s not enough accents on the front bench. I’ve always had a strong sense that an accent holds you back. I felt that when I got to Cambridge – kind of that feeling of waiting for the tap on the shoulder, but it was true in Westminster as well . . . you’re not part of the in-crowd when you come from a different background.”
Burnham recalls sharing an office with James Purnell (a southerner, now also an ex-minister) when both became MPs in 2001. Whenever news broke, their phones would ring, “Radio 4 on his, Radio 5 Live on mine,” says Burnham with a shrug, grinning.
He adds: “It does pain me to say this, but the Labour Party has replicated that, too. Of all the organisations in the country, the Labour Party has had the tendency to promote people with posher voices. And consequently we have found ourselves looking quite remote from some people. They’ve looked at us and seen a party they can’t relate to. The Labour Party will not be like that under my leadership. It will look and feel different . . . There’ll be different voices. It will look like a change has been made.”
And there lies the question. Is Andy Burnham really his own man? It’s up to party members to decide.
To read a longer version of this piece visit: newstatesman.com