Andy Burnham interview: "I'm not part of the in-crowd"

The leadership candidate on what his family teaches him about politics, how Labour has promoted too many people with "posh accents", and why he doesn't see himself as part of the Westminster in-crowd.

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Andy Burnham is his own man. Or so he says. Repeatedly during our interview, he paints himself as an independent thinker, a lone wolf – or, in other words, 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 which is different from them.”

As a serial senior frontbencher throughout the New Labour and opposition years – most notably serving as Health Secretary and Chief Secretary to the Treasury – Burnham would have a hard time disassociating himself from his party’s recent history.

And that’s just one complication in his pitch to be Labour leader. Another is that he positioned himself as the “continuity candidate” when he ran for the position in 2010, but this time round is standing as the “change candidate”.

Part of this change, Burnham feels, is for Labour “to step out of this Westminster think tank mode”. His focus is on bursting that lingering viscous cliché “the Westminster bubble” in which he feels his party has been floating far too long.

He leans across the stark, white table in his campaign HQ, a few streets away from the Houses of Parliament, looking sincerely troubled about the state of his party.

“This sense of us as a Westminster elite,” he frets. “Really not on a level with people, not understanding the lives of people who've traditionally voted for us. That has to change.”

His northern vowels and easy manner are a world away from the wonkish automaton character pervading the party’s top tiers in recent years. This, coupled with his big hazel eyes and signature dark eyelashes – so often commented upon that apparently he has a stock interview answer about them (“maybe it’s Maybelline” is a favourite) – adds to a 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 overcome this contradiction?

“Yes, I've spent lots of time here,” he replies. “But I've never bought in to the real in-crowd, if you like, in terms of those who spend their Saturdays at Fabian conferences 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 who I am, that's what I've done all my life.”

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 kind of allowed themselves to get too close to the 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.

“In the end, I will always be loyal in this game – my style has never been to cosy up to the elite interests in Westminster, be they business or media.”

Burnham, who was born in Liverpool and represents the Greater Manchester seat of Leigh, successfully forced a second inquiry into the 1989 football stadium disaster when he was in Brown’s cabinet, after the matter had been dropped.

The day the disaster happened, he was 19 years old, watching another semi-final match. Some of his friends were in the stands. He says he’s “bound up with it personally”.

Today, his silver initialled cufflinks glint above the red rubber Hillsborough charity band that rarely leaves his right wrist. He sees his greatest political achievement as standing up for the victims’ families and the city. “People felt for 20 plus years that they were treated as second-class – ‘oh, the whinging Scousers again’,” he says.

Burnham’s working-class northern roots are a major part of his electoral appeal. The message of his leadership campaign is “helping everybody to get on in life” – something he believes wasn’t articulated properly under Miliband.

He still believes in Miliband’s focus on inequality and work insecurity, commenting recently during a Labour leadership debate that the 2015 manifesto was “the best” he’d ever stood on. But he thinks the offer “was too narrow; it didn't speak to people who weren't on zero-hours contracts”.

This echoes Burnham’s view of how he differs from the other most politically experienced leadership contender, Yvette Cooper. Both were ministers during the New Labour years, and both served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

But Burnham believes they will take the party in different directions. “I think I have a different style,” he reflects. “I, by instinct, tend to go to the difficult issues and front them up – not saying others don't – that is my approach.

“And I tend in policy to go bolder rather than more minimal, if you like. Now, I think that does set me a little bit apart in this race, in that I think Labour's route back is by creating an ambitious vision for the party in the 21st century.”

He continues: “Yes, we've [Cooper and I] both been part of the government and were ministers in it – but my take on those years is the focus on what could be called retail politics has left us a bit hollowed out, to be honest, in that we've kind of had a political culture – I think it's in the Tories as well – which is small measures, small initiatives . . . leading to actually a kind of failure to go bigger and bolder when it comes to policy. I feel very strongly that the route back for Labour is to break that style of politics.”

Later in our conversation, he also hints at the distinction between himself and the others, in terms of being “labelled” – in the leadership race, for example, Liz Kendall has been tagged the ‘Blairite’:

“People want to apply labels to each candidate. I think I frustrate people because they can't do that to me,” he says. “I've not been the product of anyone’s individual patronage. I've worked my way up without being under the wing of any part of the party.”

Burnham is relying on his message about aspiration to override any pigeonholing that might be applied to him. He emphasises that his “own family story” has been all about getting on in the world.

He was born in Liverpool in 1970 to a working-class family, and is one of three brothers. He went to a Catholic comprehensive school – he describes himself as “agnostic” but holds the social values Catholicism taught him close to his heart – and eventually won a place at Cambridge to study English.

And although he’s risen the party’s ranks ever since, he has managed to retain his ‘normal bloke’ appeal. When asked in 2010 if he would rather be Prime Minister or play for his beloved Everton in the FA Cup Final, he chose the latter.

Burnham says his own family helps him make sure he’s “keeping it real”.

He’s just taken his 15-year-old son, Jimmy, to see The Strokes in Hyde Park, and he’s equally enthusiastic about taking his other two children – his daughters Rosie, 13, and Annie, 10 – to see Taylor Swift.

Burnham relaxes completely when talking about his family. He leans back in his chair with sheepish amusement as he recalls his son’s comment at the time of the election, when Burnham was giving him a lift to rugby training.

“I was at this junction near us. I flashed my lights and let somebody come out, somebody came out, and then I let another one, and then I let a third one – and he went ‘Dad, stop election driving, I’ve got to get to training!’ I was like ‘Oh, my God’,” he puts his head in his hands in mock-agony.

“Painful life as an MP's kid! Every normal function of daily living lasting five times longer than it should!”

All his children are interested in his job. He calls his youngest “the firebrand”, but occasionally discusses politics as a career with Jimmy.

“I say to him that you get the chance to do something on things that matter to you, whatever that is – that's the deal really. I wouldn't dissuade him, but his eyes would be well and truly open before he goes in. Because the job is intense and it takes a lot from you.”

Burnham’s own family background shapes his criticism of Labour. “There’s not enough accents on the frontbench,” he laments.

“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.”

He recalls sharing an office with the former Labour minister James Purnell (a southerner) when they first became MPs in 2001. Whenever news broke, their phones would ring simultaneously. “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's replicated that itself. Of all 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 this is central to the question about Andy Burnham. Is he really his own man, or does he just appear to be so? It’s now up to Labour party members to decide.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman, the EI Political Commentator of the Year, and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.