Photo by Paul Cooper

Northern supremacy: the political rebirth of Andy Burnham

After a career spent searching, the mayor of greater Manchester has finally worked out who he stands for
March 3, 2022

In April 2009, Andy Burnham was on the way to speak at Anfield for the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster when his phone pinged. It was a message from his younger brother, John. “Don’t want to worry you but we’re in the Anfield Road End. It’s packed!” As secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Burnham’s job that day was to dutifully deliver a message to the bereaved families on behalf of the prime minister Gordon Brown, and let them know that the 96 people who died in English football’s worst disaster would never be forgotten. But Labour had been in power for 12 years and had done virtually nothing over Hillsborough—and Burnham knew it. The fact that he also happened to be a lifelong Everton fan was the least of his problems.

As his moment arrived, he caught the eye of Liverpool’s Catholic bishop, the Right Reverend Tom Williams, who pointed at a small Everton badge pinned to his cassock. “I think he knew I was suffering,” says Burnham. Nothing prepared him for what was to follow. A minute into a stiff, pre-prepared speech, the first cry of “justice” rang out. More started rolling off the stands and the protest gathered such momentum that Burnham was forced to pause. Helpless, he gazed up at the crowd, trying to work out when he could start again. His friends in the stadium winced. “I was shitting myself for him,” says Steve Rotheram, then lord mayor of Liverpool and now the city region’s metro mayor. “I thought, ‘oh, my God, this is not going as we thought it would.’”

“Give us justice!” turned into a chant: “justice for the 96.” Burnham tried to hack away at a few more sentences from the script. “The prime minister asks us to think at this time about… families… who’ve shown so much dignity and resolve…” It cut no ice. Boos were now audible.

In the YouTube footage of these moments, Burnham seems to be shrinking into his suit. All of a sudden, it doesn't look like a secretary of state is speaking. He has become a lightning rod for 20 long years of inaction. “I knew how I would seem to the fans in the stadium,” he says. “But that was all part of the agony of it.”

Burnham views this as perhaps his most “traumatising” few minutes in public life. “I was on the very edge of the abyss, between the people I’d grown up with and the government I was in,” he says. The cloistered world of Westminster—and his own efforts to live up to what he thought he had to be to succeed there—had made him alien to his own people.

Within a year, New Labour was finished. The party has been out of government ever since. Burnham would go on to become one of Labour’s most popular and powerful politicians. By leaving Westminster he’s found an answer to the question the Anfield crowd were effectively asking: who do you stand for?  

At last autumn’s Labour conference, amid talk of a possible challenge to Keir Starmer’s leadership, Burnham was greeted in some quarters as a star. The remote-seeming figure who addressed the crowd in Liverpool bore little resemblance to the 52-year-old now praised for his “authenticity.” As mayor of Greater Manchester, Burnham had been playfully crowned “King of the North” after confronting the government over Covid support for his fiefdom. He was hugely popular in his region, to whom the benefits of having a figurehead—representing a people rather than just a specific political party—were now clear. He had not only just won a second term, but taken every single ward in a region that holds 27 parliamentary constituencies, eight of which currently have Tory MPs.

In late November, the national conversation turns to Starmer’s shadow Cabinet reshuffle. On the day it is announced, Burnham is sitting in the dark car park of a Manchester college. From here, Westminster seems like a long way away. The college has received £25m from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to build new training facilities and Burnham is there to contribute to a marketing film. “We need to put technical education on the same level as university education,” he tells the crew. Burnham’s mission is to undo what he sees as the wrongs of the past. His view that Labour has become too “metropolitan and university oriented” is a recurring theme. His mayoral initiative providing young people with free bus travel is a way of replacing the education maintenance allowance that was cut during austerity, he says.

Former Westminster colleagues have noticed Burnham’s new-found ease with himself. As one senior aide to Tony Blair, Sally Morgan, puts it: “he’s not thinking, ‘is this what I should be saying?’ He’s thinking, ‘this is what I am.’”

As we walk into the college gym, Burnham gets out his phone. “Have a look at this,” he says, proudly. It is a shot from the ITV drama Anne—based on Anne Williams’s fight to uncover the truth of her son’s death at Hillsborough. It’s the first time he’s seeing himself portrayed by the actor who is recreating the moment at the Anfield podium. “It really was life changing that day,” he says. Following the outpouring of emotion, Brown backed Burnham’s view that all documents relating to Hillsborough should be released. In 2012 the original inquest verdicts were quashed: a jury ruled that all 96 victims were unlawfully killed. “Playing the Westminster game… where does it get you?” says Burnham. “What’s the point in being in office if you’ve not done anything that you believe in? I’d got to a point where I wasn’t going to be the yes man anymore.”

As an MP, Burnham started to question his place at Westminster

James Purnell had known Burnham for over a decade by that point. They were teammates on the Labour Party researchers' football team, the Red Menace, in the 1990s (“he’s a goal hanger who basically doesn’t do anything but score lots,” says Purnell) and the pair had become senior members of Brown’s government via the distinctively New Labour route of being special advisers (SpAds). Purnell believes Burnham’s experience at the stadium was the catalyst to overcome a range of insecurities that had plagued him in Westminster. Burnham was originally an “insider outsider” who confidently “pushed things against what was the received opinion” as a SpAd; but as an MP, Purnell says, he started to question his place there. “Being an MP brings up lots of questions about what your identity is.” 

Born in 1970, the middle son of three boys, Burnham moved with his family between a number of semi-detached houses around the outskirts of Liverpool, each slightly better than the last, before settling in a small, detached home with a garden in Culcheth, a village halfway between Liverpool and Manchester. His mother Eileen was a GP receptionist and Roy, his father, a telephone engineer. On Fridays the boys went swimming and had tea from the chip shop. On Saturdays it was football and Sundays church, where Burnham was an altar boy in Liverpool’s Catholic diocese led by Derek Worlock. Each month, the ecumenical archbishop, who gained national recognition for defending Liverpool against Margaret Thatcher’s government, would send out cassette recordings to Merseyside congregations. It was Burnham’s job to press play. “The stuff in the catechisms and what I heard Worlock say, the political implementation of it was the Labour Party,” says Burnham.

When a schoolteacher who spotted Burnham’s academic potential gave him a VHS recording of Tony Harrison’s poem “V,” Burnham was mesmerised. Harrison’s poetry centres on the theme of alienation: from his family, community and social class. “That really spoke to me, all of that,” says Burnham. The repeated use of expletives in “V” prompted a group of Conservative MPs to put forward a critical early day motion when the poem was broadcast in 1987. The first line of one verse offers the most literal interpretation of its title: “These Vs are all the versuses of life…” 

article body image A fan reacts as she pays her respects at the Hillsborough memorial at Anfield on April 15, 2009, Liverpool, England. Thousands of fans, friends and relatives are descending on Liverpool's Anfield Stadium to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough d

Give us justice: the chanting crowd that faced Burnham during the 2009 Hillsborough memorial service. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Burnham went to study English at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. The Easter holidays of his first university year fell in April 1989. Burnham had been at the other FA Cup semi-final on the day of Hillsborough, watching  Everton versus Norwich. Like thousands of families across Merseyside, he spent the evening waiting for friends to come home. “The experience of going from a traumatised northwest back to Cambridge, which was pretty much oblivious to it all, was probably one of the most difficult experiences I can remember at that age.” 

Caught in the middle of two worlds, Burnham struggled to relate his home with where he was heading. He moved to London for a job as a writer on a trade magazine. A colleague noticed his real interest lay in politics rather than international container traffic, so she offered to introduce Burnham to her stepmother, the Labour MP Tessa Jowell. “I was… managing to live in two worlds, just about, but it was when I worked for Tessa, it was so intoxicating and I had this sense that to swim in this world, to live in this world, I’ll have to fully go for it,” he says.

As Burnham was shifting away from his northern base, the Labour Party was doing the same after its surprising 1992 defeat. A series of Fabian Society pamphlets titled “Southern Discomfort” argued the party needed to focus on economically right-wing voters in the southeast. By appealing to them, victory would belong to Labour—and for three successive elections it did.

In the foreword to New Labour’s 1997 manifesto, Blair wrote: 

We aim to put behind us the bitter political struggles of left and right that have torn our country apart for too many decades. Many of these conflicts have no relevance whatsoever to the modern world—public versus private, bosses versus workers, middle class versus working class.

 In Blair’s Britain, “all the versuses of life” were over. 

Burnham worked for Chris Smith, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, during Blair’s first term. “He was fantastic in the job,” says Smith. “Partly because he really knew his sport and was really helpful in steering me through many of the pitfalls and also because he did bring a northern voice to the table, which if you looked across Whitehall, at that period, it wasn’t necessarily true of the great spread of special advisers.”

The SpAds of Blair’s first term were “sharp-elbowed” and snotty towards Burnham and his wife, Marie-France van Heel. “David [Miliband] particularly,” says Burnham. “My wife and I had a night out once where she was placed for dinner somewhere between David Miliband and Ed Balls… and basically, they talked past her all night. We walked out and she said, ‘never introduce me to those two ever again.’”

Purnell remembers Burnham pushed policies that others didn’t think were sophisticated enough, such as free swimming. “There were all sorts of doubts and jibes about it. But actually, maybe in retrospect, that is exactly the kind of policy which would have given people a sense of Labour being on their side.”

When New Labour were gearing up for the 2001 election, Burnham went to see Sally Morgan, who was allocating candidates. She told Burnham that the MP for Leigh in Greater Manchester was going to stand down. Blair’s team had plans for the then 31-year-old Burnham; placing him in a Labour stronghold brought benefits. “Bluntly, if you’ve got somebody in a very safe seat, they don’t spend all their time just holding onto the seat,” says Morgan. “Maybe that meant that we got slightly disconnected from people.”

Burnham was elected with a majority of over 16,000. He would spend the week in London while his young family were back in the constituency. If it was the kids’ bedtime and there was a late vote, Burnham would go under the television camera in the chamber, wave and mouth “goodnight love” to his son Jimmy. 

The political history of Leigh tells the story of Labour’s current “red wall” conundrum. In 2010, Ukip and the BNP took nearly 10 per cent of the vote. In 2015, Ukip’s vote was 20 per cent. Now, Burnham’s once “very safe seat” belongs to the Conservatives.

Burnham feels his experience of growing up in a variety of tribal but broad congregations (Everton Football Club, the Catholic Church) helped him to hold his former seat together, but Labour’s focus was elsewhere. “The party had lost its ability to communicate with working-class voters. It wasn’t even trying,” he says.

In 2015, at a dinner after appearing on Question Time, Burnham predicted the vote to leave the European Union would be two to one in favour of Leave in Leigh. It would turn out to be 63 per cent. 

On 23rd June 2016, the day of the referendum, Burnham was on the main shopping street in Leigh, campaigning for Remain. A group of activists, including Jo Platt, who would serve one term as Burnham’s Labour successor in the seat, were trying to win over undecided voters. What happened next took them by surprise. “We were literally set upon,” says Platt. “We were spat at… somebody was literally about to throw a punch at Andy. This was an anger that you’ve never seen before.” Burnham says it was a heart-breaking moment. “I’d always had a pretty good reception in Leigh whenever I was out and about, but I remember someone saying ‘we always thought you were one of us,’ and they walked off. I was winded by that.”

article body image 2D1PH4E Britain's Health Secretary Andy Burnham arrives for the weekly Cabinet Meeting in Downing Street in central London July 14, 2009. The government will unveil details of plans to overhaul care services for the elderly on Tuesday saying the current

In the bubble: Burnham as health secretary in 2009, during Gordon Brown's premiership

For the majority of his career, Burnham’s name has been associated with New Labour. The label stuck, he says, because of his habit of “simplistically” following whoever the party leader was at the time, like it was a football team. Yet when Burnham, the Miliband brothers and Ed Balls—Blair and Brown’s political offspring—assembled alongside Diane Abbott to contest the Labour leadership election in 2010, Burnham stood as a critic of New Labour. Purnell thinks he was wrong to do so. “I think he should have been running as a person who was modernising New Labour,” he says. If he had emphasised his “David Blunkett” political creed—a combination of tough on crime, anti-inequality, caring about people getting on in life—as Purnell thinks Burnham is doing now in his role as mayor, it would have been “very authentically Andy.” Instead, Burnham was knocked out in the first round.

When he ran again in 2015, the race was Burnham’s to lose and lose he did. Initially the favoured candidate of the trade unions, he publicly turned down union funding, prompting Labour members to wonder which side he was on. According to one Labour insider, it was baffling. “People think that over the years, tactically, [Burnham] has been poorly advised.” Where Blair was characterised as a “ruthless bastard,” Burnham is sentimental and loyal, working with the same adviser, Kevin Lee, for over 20 years. 

The tactical errors of his leadership bid had become an irrelevance once Jeremy Corbyn entered the race with a radical alternative that appealed to a younger generation whose lasting memory of New Labour was the Iraq War and who had spent the past five years watching the harm inflicted by austerity. Wounded by his distant second place, Burnham was trying to work out what to do next when he was convinced by a friend to run for the newly created job of metro mayor.

Back when Burnham was at school, his football coach sent him to play rugby league to toughen him up. In the game of local politics, Greater Manchester had formidable players. The chief executive of Manchester City Council, Howard Bernstein, had won a raft of powers for Greater Manchester in a landmark devolution deal with George Osborne in 2014. The council leader, Richard Leese, had been in place for 20 years and turned the rundown city centre into a metropolis of glistening skyscrapers—symbolic of the duo’s ambition. Their strength came from an unencumbered ability to work with the government of the day. The region’s power lay in its structure as a “combined authority,” where the 10 councils in Greater Manchester work together as a unit. As much as the council leaders resisted it, Osborne’s victory was insisting on an elected mayor. 

According to Bernstein, the concern was that “somebody would come in and have unrivalled power to say, ‘No, I’m not doing that, bugger off. We’re going to do this,’” undermining the collaboration that had existed since the creation of the combined authority in 2011. The group attempted to limit Burnham’s role to an 11th leader. “For quite a long time Andy struggled in making that transfer from Westminster style into a [collaborative] local government style,” says Leese, who was especially wary of a Westminster outsider joining his team. According to one person who worked closely with the pair, Burnham and Leese’s “relationship was horrendous before the election and after [Burnham] got elected…” 

One area where they clashed was homelessness. “Andy had a manifesto that had a lot of things in it that were not deliverable. Either because they couldn’t be delivered or they were not within the remit of the combined authority,” says Leese, pointing to a pledge Burnham had made to eradicate rough sleeping by the end of his first term.

Burnham acknowledges he entered the job with a degree of naivety. “I was definitely no expert at local government,” he says. “But if you’re going to stand to be the first mayor of Greater Manchester, you’ve got to say, look, devolution is worth having because it can deliver some proper change.” While he didn’t meet his own target of ending rough sleeping by 2021 (it’s down 67 per cent since 2017), at one of his flagship shelters in the north of the region, the manager explains to me what his pledge did achieve: people who Greater Manchester councils didn’t have a statutory duty to house—because they were in rent arrears or another technicality—now had a safety net. “He bypassed the system,” she says. 

On 22nd May 2017, two weeks into Burnham’s mayoralty, a terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena killed 22 people. Burnham’s first public contribution that day was a statement to the press in the morning. (“Richard [Leese] said, ‘we’ll have a vigil but there’ll be no political speeches, we just keep it civic and faith-led’… it was such good advice”), and then that night he visited survivors in hospital privately. But in the months that followed, he had to speak on behalf of a grieving city. As people would see again during the pandemic, Burnham was able to communicate the emotions of a region. 

In his book The Rise and Fall of The British Nation, historian David Edgerton describes New Labour as “a party in which the parliamentary leadership dominated, was comfortable with plutocrats and had slight and wary connections to the working class.” It’s 15 years since Blair stood down and little has changed. Burnham’s standing in working-class communities is why some people still hope he’ll lead the party one day. In order for it to win again, he thinks the party needs to address its “centralising mindset” and connect with people alienated by Westminster. “What frustrates me is that Labour see devolution as a threat,” he says.

The Conservatives are now offering a metro mayor to any region that wants one. Picking up where Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse had left off, their “levelling up” strategy—a promise to find solutions to England’s regional inequalities—was the sister pledge to “Get Brexit Done” that won the Tories an 80-seat majority in 2019. Pointing to broken commitments on transport, Burnham says, “it’s clear that, as ever, it was just a political device, a slogan that hasn’t got substance behind it.” He says it makes him furious. “What’s even worse is when someone’s recognised the problem and promised you something different.”

If it were up to Burnham, he says, “I would be proposing the basic full rewiring of the country,” meaning maximum devolution, abolition of the House of Lords to be replaced by a senate of the nations and regions, as well as proportional representation. “The lot, really, because the country doesn’t work.”

“Levelling up” is just a political device, a slogan

On the day the levelling-up strategy is announced in parliament, the Conservative MP for Leigh attacked Burnham about his role in a plan to reduce air pollution in Greater Manchester. The Clean Air Zone is the result of a legal ruling that compels the government to improve air quality and has been passed onto local authorities to deliver—not the mayoralty. Opposition had been gathering pace since December. Burnham was being lobbied in the street, even during his weekly shop at Morrisons, by constituents. An online campaign, misrepresenting it as the “Andy Burnham Charge,” accuses the mayor of ignoring working-class voices. For the first time since becoming mayor, Burnham became the lightning rod for public anger, resurrecting old insecurities. At the end of January, he asked the government to postpone the charge but this was ignored on the Tory benches. “It’s all Burnham’s fault,” one MP shouted. 

It was a curious set piece for a party selling devolution that same day, and a rare appearance for Burnham’s name in the Westminster gutter. On a walk around his local area in December, he said: “That world was not my natural habitat and I came out of it thinking ‘God, what was all that about?’” Burnham hasn’t ruled out a return to parliament one day, but this isn’t some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, he insists. “The idea of properly changing the machinery of government and parliament for the benefit of fairness across the entire country would just be exhilarating.”   

If an ambiguity about the mayor’s role is being exploited by his political opponents nationally, the perception that Burnham should be all things to all people is bolstering his critics locally as well. Campaigners against less well-represented issues—such as police in schools or a council tax hike to fund the region’s failing force—want backing from Burnham. He holds the role of police and crime commissioner as part of the mayoral job and the persistent poor performance of Greater Manchester Police, placed in special measures in December 2020 after Her Majesty’s Inspectorate found the force failed to record a fifth of all crimes, also threatens to taint the commitment he made to stand alongside victims in the wake of Hillsborough. 

Regardless, five years since leaving Westminster, Burnham is more clear-eyed than ever. At one of the final Greater Manchester Combined Authority meetings of 2021, located in Rochdale’s bright, airy new council buildings, each leader takes their place and Burnham sits facing them from a desk at the front. The wide, glass-walled meeting room overlooks the town centre and tram stop and serves as a reminder that this region and its political system are modernising. 

He says he’s rejecting the new railway timetable being put forward by the government, which will negatively impact people in Greater Manchester, and asks permission to pursue his line of attack. The leaders agree unanimously and he’s sent back into the abyss, between the northwest and the government, confident about which side of the V he is on. 

“Politics is at its best when you give agency to people who haven’t got it and you do that from really listening,” he says. “That was Hillsborough. It’s where politics works for people.”