Andy Burnham speaks to Prospect's Tom Clark at Labour party conference.by Stephanie Boland / September 24, 2017 / Leave a comment
“There’s been a bit of chat about you not having a speech this time. If you had had one… what might you have said?
The room is boiling, and packed to the rafters. Women wearing Usdaw t-shirts fan themselves with pamphlets. Around the back of the room, delegates who have been forced to stand at least find themselves closest to the wine and nibbles. Freshly (temporarily?) erected, the space has the smell of fresh paint, and Prospect staff watch nervously as several men in dark blazers hazard leaning against the walls. This would be an easy audience to frustrate.
But when Andy Burnham starts speaking to Prospect editor Tom Clark about devolution—the North is, perhaps predictably, what he would have spoken to conference about—you can tell immediately that the room is behind him.
“Society is changing very quickly, and politics at the national level is struggling to keep up … having been sixteen years in parliament, having done some of the things I’ve done—most notably Hillsborough—I’ve seen a place where the London view dominates.”
“I think it partially explains the referendum result. There’s a sense that some places in the country matter more than others.”
It’s a familiar theme for Burnham, and one that he presents well. He was, he says, brought up in a fairly normal household, with parents who were Labour—“never activists or councillors, but always Labour”—and had a strong influence on him. He was also brought up a Catholic. Was this, Clark asks, a part of his identity—and did it ever cause conflict, or act as an obstacle in Parliament?
“I was often in conflict with the Church when I was an MP. And to be honest, I’m not, if you like, a believer. What I can’t escape from is the upbringing and the DNA.”
“The three organisations that shaped me were the Labour party, Everton football club and the Catholic church.”
It is in this sense, he says, that he is a “Catholic.” He cites the influence of Catholic social teaching—its passive impact on his upbringing is, he, suggests, “the same as the political views I have”—before adding: “I don’t understand how anyone can be Christian and not be on the left of politics.”
“I know that might be controversial.”
Burnham’s leadership runs
Identity has been a key source of pride for Burnham—and a key source of mocking from his detractors. (He once famously answered a Mumsnet question about his favourite biscuit with “chips and gravy.”) Having served in Gordon Brown’s cabinet, he ran for the Labour leadership in 2010 and again—against Jeremy Corbyn—in 2015.
When asked what makes him proud or regretful, he names the welfare vote during the second campaign as something he “agonized’ over. “Harriet Harman was deputy leader, and I think she said we should abstain or support.” Burnham advocated for a reasoned amendment to the Tory bill, but says in “the subtleties of Twitter” the nuance was lost.
“If I’d walked through the lobby against it, I might have stayed in the race.”
“But it wouldn’t have been me. I’ve been a team player for the party, always. So I look back on it as a regret in one way, but if I had done that, I’d have been acting out of character.”
Where does he stand now? Clark references a question asked of him during his 2010 run—“I promise this won’t all be about failed runs,” he says; “go on, rub it in, I don’t mind,” counters Burnham—regarding his placement on the Labour political spectrum. Does he still see himself, as he did then, as economically slightly left but socially slightly right?
“In the last leadership election, if Liz was the furthest to the right and Jeremy was the furthest to the right, I’m probably one jump in from Jeremy,” Burnham says.
He says, however, that despite some disagreements he couldn’t engage in the resignations that followed Corbyn’s second leadership election. “I lost to Jeremy, and I saw some people in the PLP opposed him almost immediately… they didn’t give him a fair hearing.”
“I separated myself from [the coup the second time]. A lot of people in the PLP didn’t speak to me for a few weeks. A few still don’t.”
Now, he says, he found the right place: out of Westminster, and back in the North. Hillsborough, he says, made him lose faith in the “bubble” around London’s political class. “If they could have ignored Liverpool, they would have done.”
His voice goes quiet whenever he mentions the 96, and he is equally soft-spoken when discussing a different, recent tragedy.
Recalling the night of the Manchester arena bombings, Burnham explains that it was his father’s birthday, and it was only on the third attempt that he answered Steve Rotheram’s call. His Liverpudlian counterpart told him that his daughter was at the arena.
“I saw the chief constable on the other line,” says Burnham. He spoke to the police chief. Then he rang Rotheram back: “Just get the girls out any way you can.”
Driving into Manchester the next morning, he says, he felt “felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t know what I was driving into. But I got to the office, and I felt something: the strength of the place. The strength of the people. It was 5:30am, and they were all there.”
“Someone dropped a cake off that night. I remember that. A beautiful cake with a bee on it, and at the bottom: ‘stay strong, our kid.’”
A challenge for the region
The aftermath of the attack isn’t the only challenge Greater Manchester is facing. Burnham was elected mayor on a platform of, as he puts it, “more social housing, more council housing, and to end homelessness.”
Interestingly, he seems to view his role of mayor as being as much about “soft power” when it comes to encouraging the different boroughs of Greater Manchester to tackle social issues.
Soft power, however, is his speciality—as his rousing follow-up shows. As he becomes more empathic, his voice becomes more Scouse—Burnham was born in Aintree, to two parents from Liverpool—and there are murmurs of assent from the back.
“Don’t wait for Labour to come to government to do something about homelessness,” he says.
“By 2020, there’ll be no rough sleeping. It’s urgent, isn’t it? They’re out in the doorways tonight. Are we saying that in 2017 that’s acceptable? That we can’t get a roof over everyone’s head?”
“I don’t accept a society that says for there to be winners, other people have to sleep outdoors.”
His approach to social care is similar: working together, with an integrated approach. “We spend money there for very little effect… and then we spend thousands of pounds of people in hospital beds because we can’t get decent social care.”
It’s long been a focus of his. Did he feel sympathy for May over the “dementia tax”?
“I felt disappointed. Put aside the party politics—having dipped that toe and got that reaction, it means social care reforms are off the agenda.”
“This is what annoys me about Westminster. Fear of the wrong headlines in the Daily Mail stops people doing the right thing.”
On tuition fees, too, he wants to promote a more nuanced position than that allowed by—as Clark calls it—“primary colours politics.” He wouldn’t entirely abolish tuition fees, he says, but reinstate the educational maintenance allowance and invest in apprenticeships. “For the many, not the few, has to mean helping every young person.”
Whether you call it triangulation or sitting on the fence, Burnham manages it on several topics—including the big topic of this party conference. He’s pro-Europe, but unsure about the open letter about the single market in that day’s Observer. “We could end up alienating a lot of Labour people who voted leave,” he says.
But, again, there’s that one topic he’s clear on. Before he leaves, he stresses the point: “Why is the mayor of London speaking but not the mayor of Liverpool city region?”
Nibbles gone, the audience in the small, hot room applauds.