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The Policy Ask with Andy Burnham: “I’ve had bad doses of imposter syndrome at every stage of my life”

The Mayor of Greater Manchester on self-assurance, education reform and justice for the Hillsborough and Grenfell victims.

By Spotlight

Andy Burnham has served as the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester since 2017. Previously, he was part of Gordon Brown’s cabinet in 2007-10 as, successively, chief secretary to the Treasury, culture secretary and health secretary. He also served as shadow home secretary from 2015-16 and was an MP for Leigh from 2001-17.

Andy Burnham provided these answers on 6 September 2022 when Liz Truss had just been appointed Prime Minister.

How do you start your working day?

Either with a 5-kilometre run or with Wordle – it depends on the weather and how I’m feeling!

What has been your career high?

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Winning every ward in Greater Manchester in May 2021.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

It came in April 2009 when I was culture secretary and I spent weeks agonising over whether I should attend the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. In my heart, I had to be there to support the people and the place where I was born. In my head, I knew I was in a government which had let them down. After weeks of debating it with my family, my brother John gave me the advice that finally brought me clarity: “Go if you’re going to do something for the families, Andy. If not, stay away.” So, I went to Anfield with those words ringing in my ears and, after addressing the Kop stands [at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium], met the families in private at Liverpool Town Hall where I promised them that I would do everything I could to help them achieve truth and justice. I was flying solo at that point and I knew that keeping my promise to the families would mean ruffling some serious feathers in Westminster and Whitehall, and would change my relationship with the place. But that was the decision I made. Looking back, 15 April 2009 was the crossroads of my career and the day I took my first steps on the path out of SW1 [Westminster].

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Trust your own instincts more than those of the civil servants and the political advisers. Like many people with a similar background to me, I have had bad doses of imposter syndrome at every stage of my life – at Cambridge University, in parliament and in Whitehall. In all those places, I have come up against people with posh accents who seemed so confident and convinced of everything they were saying that my initial reaction was to assume that they must be right. My younger self took too long to realise that most of the time they were talking complete rubbish.

Which political figure inspires you?

Gordon Brown. Over all the years I’ve known him, he’s been relentlessly focused on securing the common good – and that’s as true today as it ever was.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

The government has been right to make regional inequality in England – and the north-south divide – a top-order issue. But it needs to put real substance behind the sloganeering.

And what policy should the UK government ditch?

Most of its schools’ policy. Back in 2010, I was Michael Gove’s shadow when he was introducing his education reforms. At the time, I described his agenda as a “plan for some children in some schools rather than all children in all schools” – and I think that has come to pass. Academisation has separated schools from each other and isolated them from the wider family of public services. It has created a narrower academic focus rather than a whole-child approach. And, on the curriculum, the arbitrary downgrading of creative subjects through the English baccalaureate [EBacc], alongside others such as ICT and engineering, is unfair and backward-looking.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

There are a couple. First, I hope I live to see the day when common sense finally breaks out and we pass a law to provide social care on NHS terms, so people with dementia get treated the same as people with cancer. Second, my political journey tells me that it is still way too hard for people from working-class backgrounds to get truth and justice. The fact that the Grenfell families are experiencing some of the same challenges as the Hillsborough families tells you things haven’t changed. This country badly needs a Hillsborough Law to level up the scales of justice in favour of ordinary people and away from the authorities. Among other things, it means introducing a statutory duty of candour on all public servants requiring them to tell the truth at the first time of asking.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

We should adopt the Finnish philosophy of Housing First and give all British citizens a right to a good, safe home in UK law. You can’t have anything in life without security of housing.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

The Hillsborough Law – introducing a duty of candour on all public servants and parity of legal funding for bereaved families. It is too hard for ordinary families to fight for justice in this country against the secrecy of the state, and it’s time to level up the scales of justice in their favour.

[See also: Kwasi Kwarteng forgot that radicalism needs to be matched by credibility]

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