The outsider –– Andy Burnham

Although he was the second candidate to declare, the media insist on painting him as the man from ou

Andy Burnham, former cabinet minister, is back where he started. Geographically, that is. Kicked out of his Department of Health office after the election defeat, he has moved to a spacious if characterless room (large green armchairs and plastic removal boxes compete for star billing) in the Norman Shaw Building, one of those overspills across the road from the Palace of Westminster. This is the same room he used to share with James Purnell when they became MPs in 2001.

Burnham has fond memories of that time. "James and I were both very keen backbenchers and both trying to make our way in the world, and whenever a big issue broke in parliament or on the news our phones would go almost simultaneously with media calls. On James's desk, Radio 4; for me, Radio 5. If you want to sum up the difference between us, it's probably that."

Many saw Purnell, who resigned from the cabinet in June 2009 and left mainstream politics altogether in May this year, as a future Labour leader. Fewer saw Burnham in the role. Even though he made it known he would stand for the leadership within two days of Labour's fall from power, the MP for Leigh is considered to be an outsider. "I'm in a solid third position in terms of nominations received," he says. "If you look on the Labour website, I'm third [based on] nominations and indications of support."

Why, then, do the bookmakers have him as a 14-1 long shot ? "Well, I don't think the bookies understand the Labour electoral college."

Someone is taking his candidacy seriously enough to brief against him. A few days before we meet, an unattributed source told the Independent that Burnham was preparing to withdraw from the race for fear of finishing last. When suspicions fell on his fellow candidate Ed Balls, the shadow education secretary rang the New Statesman to say he and Burnham had spoken and agreed that the briefing hadn't come from his camp. Burnham confirms that the conversation with Balls took place. "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."

Burnham, who turned 40 in January, is fighting on. He sums up his campaign as a pitch for a fairer spread of health, wealth and life chances, and has coined the phrase "aspirational socialism" along the way. Note the qualifier. "Socialism 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 and 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."

The policy that fits the aspirational socialism creed is a proposed National Care Service, which would provide personal or social care free at the point of use, according to need and funded by a 10 per cent levy on estates. It's a policy with a difficult history already. As health secretary, Burnham wanted it to form part of the party's election manifesto but, in one of their more effective pre-election poster campaigns, the Conservatives lampooned the proposal as a "death tax", a characterisation that gave Burnham's senior cabinet colleagues pause for thought. "Sadly, Gordon [Brown] and Alistair [Darling] couldn't be persuaded," he recalls, with frustration.

If unwilling to criticise the former prime minister explicitly for that decision, Burnham does believe that in its later years New Labour was too timid about tax and about making bold reforms that required complicated arguments. And asked about Peter Mandelson's memoirs, The Third Man, he says: "It goes to the heart of why I'm standing . . . Labour needs to make a clean break from the self-indulgence, the elitism, the factionalism and the egotism that were the worst of New Labour."

Others might consider the decision to go to war in Iraq as the worst of New Labour. While some party colleagues have used the passage of time and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction as reasons for retreating from their original support for the 2003 invasion, Burnham holds true to his original decision to support the war. "That's politics, though, isn't it? You have to make decisions based on the best you've got at the time." In an echo of Tony Blair, he adds: "If I felt in my heart I was wrong, I would say so. People may not agree with me but I hope they wouldn't question my integrity."

If he is unequivocal about Iraq, he is less sure-footed on electoral reform. During the New Statesman hustings of 9 June, he asked the labour movement to take a long look at the matter before deciding to back the Alternative Vote. His attitude towards AV appeared lukewarm at best.

“I think you might be overinterpreting what I said," he says. "I have been on the record as saying I'm tending towards a change to AV. I think this country has been served well by majority government over the years and that clarity helps drive social change when it's necessary. You have to look carefully at what kind of political system you want and I'm one of those who's not leaping straight to say. I'm tending that way, but it's not a done deal yet."

Nor, he must hope, is the leadership contest.

The questionnaire

If you weren't a politician, what would you be?
I've just turned 40 and I've only recently given up hope that David Moyes [manager of Everton Football Club] and one of his scouts might spot me somewhere. But my first job after university was as a journalist, so I guess a journalist.

What's your favourite meal?
Chicken bhuna.

What does God mean to you?
It's the values that matter to me. I've never seen any difference between the basic Christian values and Labour values.

Have you ever taken drugs?
Yes, but in the most pathetic kind of way, once or twice at university and never since. It was cannabis.

What's your most valuable possession?
For my 40th birthday Gordon Brown sent me a copy of the original NHS Act 1946, which he'd signed.

What would you consider your biggest fault or character flaw?
Punctuality is definitely a problem, and personal organisation. There's a parking ticket from Wigan Council on the desk which I should probably keep hidden from you.

Who would you advise your supporters to give their second preference to?
They're all good friends and talented people.

Read an extended transcript of the Andy Burnham interview here.

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

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party