“Part of what I’m doing as revitalising Labour”, Andy Burnham told me, when I met him on a drizzling winter’s day in Manchester. The Westminster party was agonising over Article 50 at the time, and the implications of leaving the EU. But Burnham, still the MP for Leigh, was thinking closer to home.
“What I’m really getting after here is this idea about a stronger separate northern identity,” he said.
On May 4, Greater Manchester voters will elect a mayor to represent them for the first time. In a traditional Labour town, Burnham is the frontrunner. But he cannot be complacent.
Out of the 10 boroughs, seven voted to leave in the EU Referendum, by as much as 64 per cent in Wigan. Just Manchester, Stockport and Trafford voted Remain. A rise in Ukip support which has seen the purple party surging to second and third in many seats in local elections.
Meanwhile, in local elections, Labour’s anti-Semitism row has caused unease in three wards with a significant Jewish population. The party lost total control of Manchester City Council in 2016.
Burnham, however, argues that the North can unite behind the left – and him – and now is the time.
As a former health secretary, the candidate is already a household name. But he has struggled to shed criticism. His detractors cite everything from his refusal to resign from the shadow cabinet following the Brexit vote, to his role in blocking a public inquiry into the Mid Staffs hospital, after damning reports of abuse.
A quick online search of commentators sees him called “unlikeable”, “vanilla”, and “Andy Pandy” – with one stating that he isn’t “sticking up for Manchester’s interests by opposing Brexit”.
At his campaign launch, a bespectacled Burnham, celebrating his 47th birthday in navy short-sleeved shirt, black chinos and brown suede loafers, addressed the Labour party faithful. He spoke of training young people as a priority and addressing the housing crisis, as well as acknowledging the rise in inequality.
Then, confirming rumours, he announced his intention to pay15 per cent of the mayoral salary to a new fund to tackle homelessness. His pledge to end rough sleeping in Greater Manchester matters in a city where the homeless population is too visible to ignore.
Nevertheless, the vote to leave the EU hung over the crowd. An Everton supporter in his team shirt told me: “I believe he’ll be a great mayor for our city.” But he added: “I don’t think he’s right on Brexit, though.”
In December, Burnham broke with Labour colleagues in downplaying the importance of the single market in Brexit negotiations. “Our reluctance in confronting this [immigration] debate is undermining the cohesion of our communities and the safety of our streets,” he told the Commons, adding that the European left must “break out of its paralysis” on talking about immigration.
His stance divides the city. Such an acceptance of the Brexit vote makes its students and young professionals squirm, while those voters in the Leave-voting boroughs of Greater Manchester may consider it a plus.
Burnham’s attempt to straddle this was evident at his campaign launch. He told his supporters: “Brexit is about sending out a very clear message. Greater Manchester wants to remain a part of Europe and the rest of the world.”
But he argued that only by dealing practically with free movement, can the left respond to the right. Until then: “The left has created a vacuum that the right has filled and with the wrong answers.”
If Burnham wins, he will need to find answers quickly. The metro mayor will lead the strategy for the regional economy, and enjoy certain powers over housing, transport and skills. In this respect, Burnham’s long tenure at Westminster plays in his favour.
“He’s got sense,” a party member in his 20s told me as he took a seat in the front row at the launch. He was soon moved from his plum position by scene-setting Labour staff, replaced with a young woman.
The following Q&A session was an easy ride.The Corbynite debate which preoccupies the left in London was hundreds of miles away.
That is not to say Mancunian Labour members were not pushing for change.
“Devolution won’t mean anything if we’re just tinkering at the edges – we have to really break with the status quo,” Burnham told them.
For all Burnham’s reputation as a flip-flopper, he has been consistent in warning about the risk of a Leave vote. As early as March 2016, he declared he would bet on Brexit based on the mood in his Leigh constituency. Having been proved right, he is clear there is little point trying to hold back the tide.
“We are living through a political earthquake,” he said. “We need to come through it with a united left with better solutions.”
As Sadiq Khan has so successfully done in London, Burnham’s new Manchester base gives him the opportunity to set up camp far from the Labour leadership’s uneven reign. Nevertheless, Burnham insists he is a “loyal servant” of the party.
“I get annoyed with this flip-flopper thing,” he said. “People can say I’ve made wrong calls, but I think you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone in parliament who has been as consistent as me on loyalty to the leader.
“I was loyal to Tony [Blair] – there was a coup I was asked to join and I didn’t. I was loyal to Gordon [Brown] – I was close to James Purnell, but I didn’t join that coup.
“I gave Ed [Miliband] solid support as shadow health secretary, and then you come to what’s happened in the last year. If I had won in 2015, I would have expected at least a year to make my case to the public and the country. At the first parliamentary Labour party meeting, people were at Jeremy and it was angry and unpleasant – and it wasn’t right.”
His denies his decision to stick with Corbyn in June, while his colleagues resigned, was a self-serving move to retain the left’s support. “It was completely consistent with everything I have ever done in politics,” he protested.
So now, away from the instability of Westminster, does Burnham believe he’s leading from the North?
The man who would be king laughed at the implied leadership. “Well, I’m leading for the North,” he declared firmly. No flip-flopping in evidence.