Andy Burnham: unlikely heir to the left's leadership ambitions? | Diane Abbott

Greater Manchester’s mayor has come a long way from his past as an identikit New Labour apparatchik

Inevitably there has been speculation about the future of the current Labour leader in the face of a ruinous set of local election results for the party, including the loss of the Hartlepool byelection. Now the idea of Andy Burnham as the next leader of the party is gaining traction after an impressive performance in the Greater Manchester mayoral election. One poll found he would be the favourite to replace Keir Starmer, ahead of Sadiq Khan.

Burnham first ran for the Labour leadership in 2010. I remember it clearly because I was also in that contest. It was me running against four male candidates who were virtually interchangeable. They were all white, male, Oxford- or Cambridge-educated, former Labour party special advisers, mentored by senior figures in New Labour; and they all wore identical dark suits, complete with tie. Most important they all basically had the same New Labour politics. Perhaps the only thing that singled Burnham out was his long, dark eyelashes. As candidates we addressed more than 50 hustings up and down the country. It was my first opportunity to observe Burnham closely. In many ways he was an identikit New Labour apparatchik. But even then, you could see the glimmerings of an effort to shape his own brand, by stressing his northernness.

Burnham came fourth of the five candidates who ran in 2010, but that did not put him off running for the leadership again in 2015. I had ceded my role as the leftwing no-hope candidate to Jeremy Corbyn. To everyone’s astonishment, including Jeremy’s, he won. But not before Burnham had let the chance to be the left candidate slip through his fingers. Right at the beginning of the contest nobody thought Jeremy could win, and there was talk of Burnham being the candidate of the left instead. Importantly, the general secretary of the Unite trade union, Len McCluskey, was said to favour him. But Burnham was still a prisoner of his New Labour training. He made some anti-trade union noises and apparently refused to go to a meeting with key union figures. Unite ultimately swung behind Jeremy. And the rest is history.

Burnham now argues that if he had won the leadership in 2015, Labour would have gone on to hold many more of the so-called red wall seats in subsequent elections. This is possible. But it is not certain how much Burnham’s then resolutely New Labour politics would have appealed to those voters.

Having been rejected by the national Labour party membership twice, Burnham decided to cut his losses, stepping down as an MP to run for mayor of Greater Manchester. Decamping to Manchester worked for Burnham. It kept him well away from the bloody battles between his wing of the PLP and the Corbyn leadership. This means that he is now seen by the largely pro-Corbyn Labour party activist base as a neutral figure. Becoming mayor of Greater Manchester also enabled Burnham to reinvent himself as a plucky insurgent rather than a New Labour clone.

His best moment came when he went to war with Boris Johnson over the lack of financial support for Manchester during the coronavirus pandemic. In that standoff, in October, he said: “This pandemic has hit the north harder than it has other places because of the entrenched poverty in the north of England, because Westminster has neglected the north of England for too long.” And he accused Johnson of making northern cities the “sacrificial lambs” for his strategy.

This defiance resonated – and not just in the north of England. But it certainly strengthened Burnham’s position in Manchester. In the recent mayoral election, he stormed to victory, winning every one of the 215 wards in Greater Manchester. Now Burnham is being spoken about as the next party leader.

Keir Starmer faces another byelection in the coming months in Batley and Spen. But this West Yorkshire constituency has different demographics from Hartlepool. Support from the large minority ethnic electorate may enable the party to hold the seat and Starmer to hang on as Labour leader. But if Labour loses again, it must surely be curtains for him. And then it may be that Andy Burnham’s time will have come.

  • Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington


Diane Abbott

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