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30 June 2021

Andy Burnham: “I’m prepared to go back but as something different”

Rejuvenated by leaving Westminster, the mayor believes he has what it takes to be leader of the moribund Labour Party. So will it be third time lucky for him?  

By Stephen Bush

In the run-up to the 1997 election, Tessa Jowell, the shadow spokesperson for health and a close ally of Tony Blair, sent her researcher to a key focus group. The session was run by the pollster Deborah Mattinson, who was then working for Gordon Brown (she will soon become Keir Starmer’s new director of strategy). Labour was ahead in the polls, but there was much in the group’s findings to alarm the shadow cabinet: lingering concerns about the party’s economic credibility; and the standing of various shadow ministers. Sitting beside Mattinson, Jowell’s researcher wrote it all down, tasked with reporting back to his boss. Another staffer from that era describes him as “handsome in that half-boyish, half-rugged way he still is”. He was loyal but not given to joining in the so called TB-GBs, the jostling between Blair and Brown supporters. He was less “obviously brilliant” than Ed Balls, but less combative, too, except on the football field. A Labour grandee once told me that a minister’s special advisers tend to reflect one aspect of their boss’s personality: “Tessa was nice with a core of steel.” As for the Cambridge graduate she had recruited: “He was just nice.”

The graduate’s name was Andy Burnham. When we meet in his glass-walled office in June, the mayor of Greater Manchester is, as I have always found him to be, polite and approachable. (I first met him as a sixth-former, of which more later.) Burnham made his first bid to lead Labour in 2010, standing against the Miliband brothers, Balls and Diane Abbott to succeed Brown. At the time, he told Andrew Marr he was “quite proud” to be running as the continuity candidate. Since then, Burnham has gone on what he describes to me as a “journey away from the mainstream of Westminster politics, the mainstream of even Labour politics”.

More recently, that nice young adviser to a Blairite minister has become a source of fresh hope to the party’s middle. Since becoming mayor, Burnham has acquired a national profile, in part due to a willingness to pick fights: last October, with Downing Street over local tier-three lockdowns; and last month, with Nicola Sturgeon over travel restrictions between Manchester and Scotland. For some in Labour, Burnham has acquired his own “core of steel”. For others, he has failed to realise his early promise.

Something Burnham has retained from his time on the New Labour project is his memories of moving to London for work in the 1990s. “Because loads of people who live in London are not from London,” he tells me, “the London experience for a lot of people who live there is, ‘God, it’s so much better than back home!’ And then when you go back home for Christmas, you realise again, and it makes you frustrated.” Things worked in the capital: it was the only part of the country to escape the privatisation of its buses; Burnham arrived just as decades of underinvestment were ending.

His mayoralty is, in large part, powered by that early frustration: his flagship projects – from “Places for Everyone”, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s plan to develop homes and jobs, to his ambitious plan to roll back the fragmentation of the city’s transport networks – could be said to emanate from that sense of injustice. Or, as he puts it: “We’re rolling back the Eighties through English devolution.” That devolution takes two forms. The first is concrete policy proposals: “We are finally dealing with things that parliament hasn’t dealt with… So, transport has been dysfunctional out of London for 30-odd years. Housing, again: dysfunctional.” Second, devolution manifests itself as a sense of pride: “Another awful hangover of the Eighties [was] this idea that people were demonised and places were demonised.” He recalls how, when he ran for the mayoralty in 2016-17, people said, “‘We’ll vote for you, Andy, but it’s a bit of a white elephant: you should get yourself back to Westminster.’ That was pretty common.”

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He was re-elected in May with 67 per cent of the vote. Burnham turns to his chief of staff Kevin Lee, who sits in on our conversation, and asks, rhetorically, “Did we hear that phrase ‘white elephant’ once this time? I think people are saying, ‘Right, this is working, this thing. If anything, we want a bit more of it.’”

Meanwhile, for Labour at Westminster, it doesn’t feel as if the 1980s are being rolled back. The party has lurched from one election defeat to another, hoping that each marks its lowest point; it has suffered the loss of all but one of its MPs in Scotland, and annihilation in the north and Midlands in 2019 (including Leigh, the once-safe seat that Burnham represented from 2001 until his election as mayor). One reason Burnham’s stock at Westminster has risen in his absence is that in May he didn’t just win in the city of Manchester, but in every single one of the mayoralty’s wards – including heavily pro-Leave areas that swung away from Labour in the local elections.

I first met Burnham when he visited my school and took questions from sixth-formers. In the dying days of the New Labour government, so many ministers seemed defensive, hesitant, particularly when taking questions from precocious (read: annoying) teenagers. But I was impressed by Burnham’s willingness to engage, rebutting us on everything from the government’s approach to the financial crisis to criticisms of his own pay. When he ran for the leadership in 2010, I volunteered on his campaign.

But when I interviewed Burnham for the New Statesman during his second bid for the party leadership, in 2015, he seemed a very different politician. Yes, he was warm and approachable, but his status as the bookmakers’ front-runner seemed to weigh heavily (Jeremy Corbyn was a late entrant to the race). He spoke frequently of his status as an outsider. He recalled how, when he shared an office with James Purnell, another special adviser-turned-minister, Purnell would be asked to appear on the Today programme while, because of his accent, Burnham got the 5 Live requests. “There’s no doubt that, compared to the rest of that crowd, he was marginalised, and that his accent was part of why,” one of the MPs supporting him told me at the time. Still, it was a very relative kind of marginal. “The number of people who care about it can be counted on the fingers of one hand.” It was only when Burnham talked about his three children – Jimmy, now 21, Rosie, 19, and Annie, 16 – that he seemed to fully relax, once again becoming the easy-going candidate of 2010.

His 2015 campaign was hesitant, confused and at times incoherent. Burnham’s attempts to both outflank the Blairite Liz Kendall and run as the left-most candidate created a space for Corbyn to step in, make the ballot and win. Now, as mayor of Greater Manchester, Burnham appears to have found himself again: to have acquired a sense of purpose and focus. But what started him on his journey, where is he taking Greater Manchester – and could he yet make a third bid for the Labour leadership?

***

Burnham dates the start of his journey away from New Labour to 16 April 2009, when, as secretary of state for culture, media and sport, he was jeered at Anfield during a speech to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 football fans were killed. “I knew exactly what I was walking into,” he tells me. “I truly agonised about it, because I was on the horns of an incredible dilemma: the personal me wanted to go, the professional me knew that I’d nothing to say.” Helping to tip the balance was his having spent most of the previous year in Liverpool, to mark its reign as European Capital of Culture, while Steve Rotheram, a friend who was then a Liverpool councillor, was also urging him to come.

“I was walking to the very edge of the abyss, between the government I was in and the people I’d grown up with,” Burnham says. “Those faces I was looking at were half-recognisable to me. They were people I’d been at school with, people my mum and dad knew, distant relatives.” He made a conscious decision to use the moment as a way to “reopen Hillsborough”, calling for the declassification of police files to assist a new inquiry. “That was the departure point,” he says; he was no longer solely a loyal party man. “It didn’t all happen straight away, but I was starting to forge my own path, if you like, from there.”

Burnham’s first attempt at the leadership was not a serious one. I don’t mean in terms of the way it was conducted, or as a commentary on the quality of its campaign team (I, for one, think I was an excellent volunteer). Labour’s electoral college system meant that the winner was only ever going to be one of the Miliband brothers, with their large base of support in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Many of Burnham’s parliamentary supporters backed him because they thought he deserved a significant role in the shadow cabinet. His most high-profile allies were grandees of the New Labour right such as David Blunkett and Hazel Blears, who talked adoringly of Burnham’s strengths. That first campaign had minimal funding, with backing from the England and Liverpool footballer Jamie Carragher (Burnham had supported Carragher’s charity for young people in Merseyside, the 23 Foundation).

In 2010, as he told Marr, Burnham was proud to be associated with the New Labour project. Today, when asked to describe his politics, he puts himself on the party’s “soft left”, and uses the 2015 leadership contest as a yardstick: “You’d have Liz Kendall at one end, Jeremy Corbyn at another, and I’d be one step in.” (Yvette Cooper, who completed the quartet of candidates, was to the left of Kendall and the right of Burnham.)

For some of his critics, the reason his 2015 campaign stalled was because that position was nothing more than a pose. When Burnham failed to establish himself as the authentic candidate of the left, Corbyn’s candidacy won enough support to make the ballot. Burnham says now of his 2015 leadership bid: “It wasn’t me, really, what people were seeing.” He blames the Westminster system and its rigid party whip, which he believes encourages MPs not to see the bigger picture: “It almost takes away their individuality, their authenticity.” There are exceptions, he says. “Someone like Jess Phillips: you just see her character, don’t you? And you get a real sense of her and what she’s about, and I think people like that. And yet, ordinarily, most people don’t come over in that way in the Westminster world. And I didn’t, I don’t think.”

His own political and personal style was part of the problem, he admits: Phillips has always been an unashamed maverick, while Burnham is still proud to have been “a really loyal player in the Labour government. I wouldn’t change that, because in government, you have to be loyal, or it doesn’t work.” Loyalty remains important to him. Lee, his chief of staff, has worked with him for two decades now. When, after our interview is finished, I make an offhand remark about the fortunes of Mikel Arteta, one of the finest footballers to have played at Burnham’s beloved Everton, and now manager at Arsenal, Burnham bristles slightly and points out that Arteta was highly rated as an assistant at Manchester City. If Arteta was struggling at Arsenal, he seemed to imply, that was a reflection on the London club.

His sense of loyalty meant Burnham was the only one of the three defeated 2015 candidates to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. He was also one of only a handful of politicians not to quit the shadow cabinet in 2016, after the Brexit referendum and the doomed coup against the Labour leader.

Burnham says that he stayed for three reasons. “I’d lost to [Corbyn], unlike the rest of the PLP – bar Yvette and Liz. [But] I was the one who lost to him, really, because I would have won if he had not entered the race. It was true to character. I never got involved in any of those coups, against any leader. The same people who criticised me took part in a coup against Tony Blair, and I remember I didn’t take part in that, because I always find it’s quite unattractive.” He can only mean Tom Watson, the then deputy leader who was central in the successful coup against Blair, and in the efforts to dislodge Corbyn. “It’s not where I’ve come from politically, as well, the way I’ve operated, if I’m honest.”

Burnham believes that attempted 2016 coup to have been a wrongheaded response. “The country had just said something pretty major about our relationship with Europe, and it’s like everything: the PLP sees everything through the prism of Labour politics. Life was not saying that. The public were not telling us something about Labour politics. They were telling us something about how they saw the country.”

***

Who is the real Andy Burnham: the continuity candidate of 2010, or the “soft left” politician of 2015? The demands of the mayoralty have shown that the answer is both. While he might be “rolling back the Eighties” on transport and housing, in a repudiation of New Labour’s approach in office, he has positioned himself as tough on crime. Burnham describes himself as “quite old-school” on this subject. “That was the bit of the New Labour script that I was always really strong on: the tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime – absolutely.” He has appointed a new police chief, Stephen Watson, who has said he “absolutely would not” take a knee, and that “the public are getting a little bit fed up of virtue-signalling police officers when they’d really rather we just locked up burglars”.

Burnham recently marked the 20th anniversary of his election to parliament. “And I’ve watched Greater Manchester Police throughout all of those 20 years, from various vantage points, but [also] from a close vantage point. I think they’ve never been the police force I would want them to be in that period. I think now, if you look at what our new chief constable has been saying –he’s very much my appointment, he is saying everything that I have long wanted to hear.” Which is? “Recognising that it’s our poorest communities where there are more victims of crime, so they need the best policing. And it’s old-fashioned, visible policing,” he says. “When austerity hit, Greater Manchester Police started to retrench a bit to the centre, and that’s one of the reasons why it got itself into difficulties. It pulled people in from other divisions and districts, and policing was eroded.”

There is also a Hillsborough connection: Watson’s previous job was in charge of the South Yorkshire Police, a role he took up following the second Hillsborough inquest, which found that the 96 dead had been unlawfully killed, and heavily criticised the police. “They were in a pretty dire position,” Burnham says. “Four years on, five years on, they were rated outstanding on culture and ethics, and that to me says something really important about this person and what he stands for.”

***

In 2010 Burnham explained to Marr that he was proud to be the continuity candidate because “we said things that connected with the public – that we would be tough on crime, that we would be pro business”. But on another level, he added, the party had “lost [its] way. In relation to wealth, at times it looked as if we had no view on very excessive wealth, and I don’t think the Labour Party could ever be in that position – where we just had no view about wealth at the very highest levels.” The mayoralty has allowed Burnham to express these two halves of his political thinking. When he appoints a tough-talking police chief and raises council tax to increase the number of officers on the streets, he is the Burnham of 2010. When he seeks to unpick the privatisation of Greater Manchester’s buses, he is the Burnham of 2015.

On other matters, his thinking has evolved. In Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet, Burnham was one of the most vocal critics of the alternative vote system, or PR, and a key player in the party’s decision to remain neutral in a debate led by the Liberal Democrats. Now, he is a latter-day convert to PR. This is in part born of his experience working with other parties across the combined authority: of Places For Everyone, a nine-borough plan, Burnham says: “I think the fact that nine are still in it is a major achievement, to be honest, for mature politics.” He also credits his PR-supporting father, Roy, “who has worked on me for years on this”. There is one other, less likely reason for his change of mind: the 2015 election, in which Ukip won close to four million votes and got just one seat. “And I felt uncomfortable with that, and I’ll tell you why: because I felt that was dangerous. And I think it was, with what came the next year.” Had Ukip been rewarded with more seats, he believes, we might have been in a very different place.

As mayor, he has grown used to clashes with national governments. “Isn’t that what I’m meant to do, if our city was struggling?” he says, when I ask about the disagreements with London and Edinburgh. He considers his conversations with Boris Johnson in the autumn of last year: “I don’t think he understood the effect of the restrictions that they’d put us under for three months. We’d been under restrictions for August, September, October, and it was hurting people. As mayor of London, would he have not said anything? Of course not!”

The recent row with Sturgeon is one thing, but those with Johnson are quite another: the government feels bruised by its confrontation with Burnham. One cabinet minister recently told me that England had “quite enough mayors” as it was; is there a risk that a centralising government might want to unpick or pause devolution? “What I would say to them is, their interests are aligned with ours. They want to level up, we want to level up. The more we work together, the more quickly it will happen, and politically, that’s in their interest. They’ve got to take the personalities out of it.” He thinks that a Labour programme should implement “devolution, not just [in] all parts of England, all parts of the UK, actually”.

Instead of leaving it to the Scottish government to empower local government in Scotland, a Labour government should do it across the UK. “The way to get back in Scotland is to go underneath what the SNP are doing, which I think is hoovering power up from local places.” You can see the rationale: devolution has transformed Burnham’s own fortunes. Similarly, it could give Labour a platform it has lacked in Scotland since the SNP’s victory in the 2007 elections.

But devolving power in Scotland requires winning in England, something that Labour at present looks very far from doing, although Burnham disagrees. “I think Keir has a really good opportunity now,” he says. “We’ve all found ourselves in a difficult position over the last 12 months – it’s stressed the body politic, hasn’t it?” Now that lockdown is easing, he says, Labour has a chance to move forward. The government’s position in the polls is, he believes, “artificial – I don’t think it’s as strong as it looks”. But it means “a more direct approach to confronting them on certain issues. I think Labour needs definitely to talk less to itself and more to the country.”

Although Burnham has his enemies within the parliamentary party, he has a network of allies, and could, if he wanted to, make a third push for the leadership. Will he? Would he want to return to Westminster, when he so relishes the freedoms of the mayoralty?

“I ain’t going back any time soon,” he says. “I get asked it relentlessly: would I ever go back? So the answer is, I would, but it’s not any time soon. I’m supporting Keir – I want him to win the next general election, and I will do whatever I can to help him achieve that.” I sense there’s a “but” coming. “If it were to happen, the answer to your question is: it’s not about personal ambition alone – although you can’t really say there’s not some of that, of course.”

Burnham warms to his theme, all the ways in which his experience and his vision – reformist on the economy, traditionalist on crime – have evolved. He is ready in a way he wasn’t in 2015 or 2010. “My journey has given me, I think now – I am really clear about the things that need to happen to make this country a much better, fairer place. Anyway, that’s the answer: I have got clarity, finally, about what I’m about, what kind of programme I would bring forward.” And if he tried for the leadership, we would see a new Andy Burnham, one forged from his time as Labour’s King of the North. “If there was a moment where that was right, then I’ve indicated that I would be prepared to go back. But I wouldn’t put the old suit back on – it would be to go back as something different.” 

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s Labour desperately needs to stand for something]