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Andy Burnham interview: extended transcript

'Labour needs to make a clean break from the self-indulgence, the elitism, the factionalism..."

What do you stand for?

A fairer spread of health, wealth and life chances. That really would summarise what I'm in politics to achieve. I think we still live in a very uneven and unequal country. I come at it in many ways from the viewpoint of the underdog, very much related to my own background. I have this burning sense that, if you don't have the connections and the helpful friendships that some have, you will find it a lot harder to get on in life. That perpetuates inequality and a sense that the country is still run by elites.

Is there a sense that some of the other candidates benefited from exactly that sort of thing?
I have a pretty hard and fast rule that I'm not going to talk about the other candidates' lives, but I am talking about my own background. Because I've always been an instinctive, conviction politician, the passions I have come from my own experience. When I left university -- I got to Cambridge against my own expectations -- I felt that doors would be flinging themselves open for me. That's what I'd been led to feel would happen. I saw friends I was at university with just sailing off into the media and to the editorial desk of the Guardian and the trading desk of Goldman Sachs and the main barristers' desk of whatever they're called . . . Freshfields? Nothing happened for me. And I look back on it; I always come back to that part of my life. If you're not part of a circle where your parents know people who can sort out some work experience or put in a word for you . . .

Your kids will be in exactly that circle because of who their dad is.
I'm not in politics to make life better for my kids, I'm in politics to make life better for the kids who went to the school that I went to, who still find it very hard to get on in life. I have, as I say, this strong sense of the underdog. If you're lower down, the odds are more stacked against you than if you're more fortunate. And the postcode of the bed you're born in still pretty much determines where you end up in life. That's why I'm in politics: to change that and break down some of those enduring unfairnesses.

One of the phrases you've coined is "aspirational socialism". Why not just "socialism"?
Because that can imply a levelling down, a dragging down.

Do you think it implies that?
It can do. It's a positive word for me: that's why I've introduced it into the leadership campaign. I was the first candidate to do so, and I'm pleased to see that others are now following my lead. I'm not ashamed of saying it: I wanted to rehabilitate the word; it is a good word, for me. It conjures up good things -- selflessness, compassion, mutuality. But, for some, it's been associated with this idea that you drag down or hit people with punitive tax and you stifle ambition and aspiration. Socialism should never be about that. It needs that extra word, aspiration, to bring it to life in a way that fits my own political philosophy. It's about talking to those ordinary kids in the north-east, the north-west, the Midlands, who come from a community where expectations are low, where they may suffer from a bit less self-confidence. It's about a society where you really help the talent that is there to come through.

How does it translate into practical policies?
The perfect illustration is the National Care Service. If you want to know what I'm all about, it's that. For me, it is the embodiment of aspirational socialism, because it's saying you take an area like care for older people, which is currently a "fend-for-yourself" system with a pretty paltry bedrock, safety-net level of support. It's about saying: "We can organise this system in a collectivist way that will mean that we can help protect everybody" -- and particularly the most unfortunate in society, those who develop the most serious neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. It's about saying that we will all come together to help those people who are the most unfortunate, and it could be any of us.

Remind me how it works . . .
The proposal that I brought forward in the white paper was that we provide personal or social care free at the point of use, according to need (basically on NHS terms), funded by a 10 per cent levy on estates. Before the election, sadly, Gordon [Brown] and Alistair [Darling] couldn't be persuaded: there was that Tory gravestone poster. The debate became very redolent of the American health-care debate and the Tories imported tactics from the Republican right. Our social care system looks like the American health-care system, because people basically pay according to their need. I kept saying we don't have a death tax, we've got a dementia tax.

This term, "death tax", was incredibly powerful.
Yes, but I was saying that nothing is easy in politics. Sometimes you've got to make a complicated argument. One of my critiques is that New Labour was way too timid about tax and making a bold reform with a complicated argument. We did that in the early stages of government because we funded the NHS through an increase in National Insurance. I felt that, this election, the National Care Service could have been the big idea which reminded the public what Labour was all about, what it stood for, what its core values were.

You must have been disappointed when Gordon Brown didn't support it.
Gordon gave me great support on it and, I think, could absolutely see the appeal of what I was trying to achieve. And it was in the manifesto. Where we pulled our punches was on the tax side of things. Because of that, people didn't think it was a serious proposal and it looked like it was half a proposal. So yeah, I do feel a sense of frustration. But I'm coming back to the issue because I am absolutely certain we will have a comprehensive care system at some point this century. It's just a case of when, because we can't go on with an ageing population allowing people to pay for themselves, using up all of their savings and the homes that they've worked for. It's not British, actually. We organise support on a comprehensive, collective basis, and it's the only piece of the welfare state that isn't organised on that basis.

Why shouldn't NHS spending be ring-fenced?
The ring fence is what we proposed at the election and, in many ways, it is what I'm still arguing for, which is protection in real terms. Before the election, Labour calculated that if you gave the NHS protection in real terms -- so frozen in inflation -- it would allow you, on the other hand, to give schools inflation in real terms and give police inflation in real terms. Those are the three key services. The health service does not exist in isolation. By taking a more balanced approach to public spending, you can protect the three key services.

So your argument is that ring-fencing it in isolation makes it nonsense?
They're not ring-fencing it. They're increasing it. They're doing two things: they're accelerating the reduction in public spending, which I wouldn't have done, and they are also going to increase the NHS within that. So they went through the whole election campaign boasting that they were going to spend more than me and they're still doing it. Cameron's been saying it every week in the Commons: "Oh, the shadow health secretary wants to spend less on health than us."

Which is true, isn't it?
Yes, it is true, but that's my point. They are both shrinking the envelope for overall public spending and increasing NHS spending. The net effect of that is absolutely cliff-edge cuts for the other public services -- 40 per cent is now being spoken of. It is absolutely flawed and short-sighted to think that the NHS exists in isolation from those other public services. The NHS cannot function if it cannot discharge older people into the community.

There's a bit of wriggle room there for the coalition. People are saying real-terms increases means 4, 5, 6 per cent, and there's going to come a point where the government says: "We can go this far, but no further."
We're beginning to find them out. This was only ever . . . a ploy to make them look stronger than Labour on the NHS at the election, that's all it was. It wasn't driven by good policymaking or sound public spending principles; it was purely a political device and their language recently has all been about modest or very modest increase. Well, what is that? Is it 1 per cent, 2 per cent? What is a modest increase in the NHS? I don't think it can be less than 1 per cent, because then their policy is practically the same as mine.
They've not defined what a real-terms increase is, so they've had all the political benefits from this policy. But now they're slowly, slowly watering it down. This is another area where they are getting away with so much. It's like the white paper [on changes to NHS structure in England, announced on 12 July]: it makes me want to weep. It's totally dispiriting and wrong-headed. The point on the NHS question is, even if you give the NHS 1 per cent, the effect on other services of that 1 per cent -- because the NHS is such a big part of the cake -- is big, so you can't protect social care, or schools, or the police.

Do you recognise the air of cabinet fatalism characterised by Peter Mandelson in his memoirs?
I can only speak for myself, but I wasn't organising my leadership campaign throughout the election campaign; I was fighting an election campaign.

Is it fair to say others were?
I'm just speaking for myself.

Has Mandelson made a misjudgement by coming out so early with all this?
I think it's time for a new generation to make its argument in the Labour Party. I think we've heard enough from that era. It's time to move on. In some ways, perhaps it helps to say: "This is what I'm moving on from." It goes to the heart of why I'm standing, because I believe Labour needs to make a clean break from the self-indulgence, the elitism, the factionalism and the egotism that was the worst of New Labour.

Part of the worst of New Labour was the tendency to brief against people. Recently you were the victim of this. Ed Balls is very clear that it's not him and not his team, and he says that he's spoken to you about it.
He did. It was very good of him. He rang me directly.

And you agree that it wasn't coming from his office?
Ed rang me and I appreciated the phone call. I absolutely, completely took what he said. The difficulty in a leadership campaign is that there are voices off all around. It was a very deliberate attempt to knock me off course.

It wasn't him, but could it have been part of his team?
I'm certainly not accusing. Ed rang me and that was good enough for me. I don't believe that it was connected at all to his campaign. Let me say absolutely plainly: he rang me, and I wasn't actually pointing the finger there anyway. All I know is that I'd read a fairly malicious piece in the newspaper, briefed to a fairly senior journalist, so it couldn't just be dismissed. But it had no basis in truth. If I'd been agonising [about quitting the campaign] . . . Well, why would I? I'm in a solid third position in terms of nominations received. If you look on the Labour website, I'm third, if you look at nominations and indications of support . . .

If you look at the bookies you're a 14-1 shot.
I don't think the bookies understand the Labour electoral college. Let's look at hard facts. I've got nominations that put me in third place at the moment. Obviously, that can change, but I'm very, very pleased with that. I'm pleased with the momentum that's building behind my campaign.

Someone is going to benefit from second preferences. Could that be you?
Well, I hope so, I've got a very clear message and in many ways it kind of helps, with the [Mandelson] memoirs and all that. I am offering a clean break. I'm running my campaign from Manchester; I come at politics from a completely different route and point of view -- and I think that is exactly the change that Labour needs.

One area where you don't offer a clean break is over Iraq. Do you recognise that it's still damaging the party? And wouldn't it be easier for the party if you said, "In hindsight, the decision to go to war was wrong"?
I recognise your question. I recognise that it does still cause hurt in the party. But I don't agree with your prescription, because in government you have to take decisions and Labour must be a party of government. We must have the ability to make decisions and stand by them, and I'm not backing away from my decision.

You took a decision without having all the facts at your disposal.
That's politics, though, isn't it? You have to make decisions based on the best you've got at the time. It's not a perfect world; things, events happen. You have to make a judgement on the best you know at the time; you have to make a decision. On Iraq, I voted for it because the leader of the Iraqi Kurds pleaded with MPs to do that at a private meeting here before the war. I asked him outright: "Do you think weapons exist?" And he said: "I don't know, but our people will for ever be suppressed because we can't be sure."
And that was the problem with Saddam Hussein -- to maintain his grip over his own people, he had to maintain the pretence that he had them. That's why he had to frustrate [the UN weapons inspector Hans] Blix. He couldn't let him finish his work, because the minute he finished his work and the world was told he didn't have any weapons would have been the moment Saddam would have been drummed out of power. I believe there would have been a civil war, which would have been problematic in a different way. The root cause of all this was the failure to remove him at the end of the first Gulf war. And I think the world, because of that, was going to have to come back to the Iraq question.

You say that if Hans Blix's inspection had run its course and he'd said, "Actually the WMDs don't exist," there would have been a civil war, but that's exactly how it ended up anyway.
It was certainly bloody and it was certainly ugly, there's no getting away from that. The question is now: is Iraq in a better position than it was? Does it have hope of a better future than it did? Is there more order in the country than would otherwise have been the case? Does the government have more of a chance of making a success of itself in the medium to long term? The answer to those questions is: yes, it does, it has hope of rebuilding itself and not becoming a failed state. And that, for me, justifies the decision, hard as it was. But yes, "move on" -- that phrase was used possibly too early. The time is coming when Labour can, with this grey point in its history, genuinely take a step forward.

Is it easier to move on with someone who didn't vote for the war?
I don't think so. Obviously party members have to make their judgement. All I can say is that I'm not somebody who twists about in the wind. I make decisions, I stick by them. That is the kind of person I am; I think that's what people need in a leader: the ability to take a decision yet not stick by it knowing that you're wrong. If I felt in my heart I was wrong, I would say so. People may not agree with my decisions but I hope they won't question my integrity.
I do feel there is a need to take the party beyond the damaging argument we've been through. I'm proposing that, as leader, I will set up a commission on military intervention in the party, in the wider Labour family and also drawing in representation from civic society, to look at Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan. The central question is: what, where and under which circumstances should the Labour Party give its endorsement to military intervention? So, essentially, what it would be trying to do is develop a framework for intervention.

I sense you have a view on that already.
I'm not articulating a doctrine of intervention; it's not a neocon view, it's absolutely not that. It's simply that I fear Labour could get it wrong, coming away from Iraq and saying: "Never again." If you look back at Kosovo and Sierra Leone, while the intervention in Iraq is much more contested and disputed, there are people in Kosovo and Sierra Leone who are, to this day, joyous that the Labour government took a moral lead. Labour cannot give up on that moral lead, which improves lives and upholds human rights. My worry would be, yes, we learned a lesson from Iraq and the [conclusion of the] Chilcot inquiry will be a sobering moment for Labour, but you can't then [allow] the pendulum [to] swing right back and say: "We can never do that again. We've now become a country that doesn't play its role on the world stage."

Is it fair to say that you think a proposed referendum on the Alternative Vote is a peripheral issue?
I'm not dismissing the importance of the debate. I'm simply asking the Labour Party to keep it in perspective. I don't believe any of my constituents would put it in their top ten most important issues. Whereas if the world of Westminster becomes convulsed and obsessed by this debate, then it could quite easily cement an impression that many people have out there: that Labour is out of touch and talking about things that are not the everyday concerns of people. You've got to remember: 1.3 million people, we're told, are in danger of losing their jobs. There are more urgent and important issues.

But it's more than that. At the NS hustings you were urging the party to take a long, hard look at this issue. The inference I drew was that you felt that if you wanted strong Labour government, then PR, perhaps, but certainly AV, was going down a path that was dangerous. It meant that you wouldn't get that strong government.
I think you might be overinterpreting what I said. I have been on the record as saying I'm tending towards a change to AV. I think it's not sensible right now to hitch my cart to any particular bandwagon. I'm not wanting to close down that debate, but let's keep it in perspective. Also, let's consider the implications in the round. What does this mean for our political system and Labour's place within it? We have to think about that.

There are people who say: "We don't want a change in the electoral system because it creates wishy-washy coalitions." Is that a view that you subscribe to?
I'm a big believer in the constituency link. The fact that I was at the cabinet table on a Tuesday and the constituency office table in Leigh on a Friday was fantastic. That sense of rootedness that British politics has is a great strength and we should never give that up. Obviously, we can keep that with AV.
I think coalition government, in one sense, can be attractive, and I've said at hustings that Labour could make a mistake if we now snigger at or dismiss the coalition. Lots of people could find it very appealing. When I tried to work with the other parties on social care, I was very struck by how many people said: "Oh, it's wonderful to see you working across the political divide." But my wife's family is from Holland and what you eventually saw there -- when they went through their convulsion with [the assassinated Dutch politician] Pim Fortuyn -- was the public expressing outrage and protest at the political class, because everything was a compromise and a stitch-up and a deal. You've got to be careful.
I think this country has been served well by majority government over the years; that clarity helps drive social change when it's necessary. You have to look carefully at what kind of political system you want. I'm one of those who's not leaping straight in to say. I'm tending that way, but it's not a done deal yet.

What could David Moyes teach you about leadership?
He's a wonderful role model. The Moyes textbook would be on my desk as leader. Let me give you a few examples:
* Loyalty -- he sticks by people who are loyal to him. That's one of my traits.
* He's brought stability -- that's a great strength in a leader.
* He doesn't flip about in the wind and do one thing one day and one the other.
* He doesn't do some of the things other Premiership managers did, like grabbing a microphone on the pitch and lecturing players. He doesn't go in for showiness. That's another great Moyes trait.
Great leadership skills, actually. As I say, I would follow the Moyes textbook.

Interview conducted 13 July 2010

Read: The ousider -- Andy Burnham

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein.