Andy Burnham: ‘Has Labour still got what it takes to fight an injustice? No’

The Blair minister and twice mayor of Manchester thinks not. But, he says, if members should now decide that he has the vision needed to win back voters, he might consider a return to Westminster

Andy Burnham is wearing a black sweatshirt, jeans and trainers, having just returned from what he calls a “homelessness walkabout” in central Manchester, talking to rough sleepers. He is in high spirits, as the homeless numbers are right down.

His mood is boosted further when the director of his office, Kevin Lee, slaps a file down on his desk showing all the final voting figures from the mayoral election.

Lee apologises that his boss is not decked out in a suit and tie. It is the second time in five days that the mayor has been out and about since being re-elected. At 7am on Monday Burnham had hopped aboard buses and trams and talked to commuters about the cost of public transport, all of which was then put out in a slick video on social media.

As we sit down to talk there are two messages that he and his team clearly want to get across to readers of the Observer. One is that the mayor is a man of the people, a politician who, as he puts it himself, is now “doing politics differently”.

“First morning in the job four years ago I did a homelessness walkabout. I was absolutely determined to repeat it this week because I don’t want anyone to think that that’s now a low priority. There’s a saying in this city, from the suffragettes – ‘Deeds not words’. And when I came into this, out of Westminster, I was absolutely determined to take a deeds not words approach. Live it,” he says.

Burnham describes a world completely removed from his previous life as an MP and government minister in the House of Commons. “This isn’t a situation where there’s a security cordon that I walk through every morning and then I’m sort of taken away from the life that everyone else is living.

“I am commuting with everybody – not just when I’m filming either. I’m on public transport. I’m having a pint in the pubs outside. I kind of walk about and I make a point of this so people can come and talk to me. So it’s an exhausting job for that reason actually – because it is full on, you are absolutely there and people can come and raise anything. But that is the power of it, I think, it’s truly bottom up.”

The second message he wants to project is that politicians communicating in this way with people thanks to devolution actually works. The voting figures on his desk are genuinely staggering. They show that on a day when Labour suffered hugely disappointing losses across many of its former heartlands in the north and Midlands, the Labour mayor Burnham won in every single one of 215 wards the length and breadth of socially and economically diverse Greater Manchester. “There are places like Hale Barns, Southern Trafford, Bramhall in Stockport which are, well, solidly Tory … until now,” says Lee.

Andy Burnham at a memorial service to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster at Anfield in 2009.
Andy Burnham at a memorial service to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster at Anfield in 2009. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Burnham insists they mustn’t boast or appear cocky. He is also conscious of being branded a “professional northerner” who bangs on about the elite not understanding real people, a label he remembers being given when at Westminster. But on the other hand he feels very strongly that there are lessons from his successes that Labour nationally needs to heed – and fast.

The fact that voters backed him in such large numbers is, he says, “saying something” not so much about him, but about the potential for Labour to use devolution to reconnect and restore bonds with supporters it has lost.

Last year Burnham fought high-profile battles with Boris Johnson on behalf of the people of Manchester for more money at the then height of the Covid crisis. His reputation soared locally and nationally and he earned a new nickname as “king of the north”.

At the ballot box 10 days ago he reaped the benefits with 67% of the vote. “It was very different to 2017 where people would say: ‘Oh this is a pointless position [that of mayor]. A white elephant. Another layer, we don’t need it.’ This time the result was saying something. People were saying: ‘Yeah we like this. We can see now, we can feel what this is about.’”

The people of Manchester have taken to devolution, he says. “This place likes to do more for itself, it doesn’t like to be told what to do by anybody, and therefore the job of mayor speaks to Manchester. But it speaks to everywhere really and I think it will happen in Leeds with Tracy Brabin. It is great to see a woman metro mayor – the first one. And if you really embrace that, this is how devolution delivers, for the Labour party, the public, the body politic generally is made healthier by this type of approach in my view.”

With Keir Starmer’s party still licking its wounds after the disastrous Hartlepool byelection and other poor local election results, followed by a chaotic and bitter shadow cabinet reshuffle last weekend, Burnham says repeatedly that he wants to be positive and constructive rather than stir up trouble for his party or its leader.

But on the other hand he is not going to miss his chance. He is only 51, had held three cabinet jobs before he left Westminster, has run Manchester for four years already, and is still very ambitious. Just by promoting himself as the “man of the people” he knows that comparisons will be drawn with Starmer, the ex-lawyer in a suit at Westminster who has, as yet, failed to electrify his party or the country.

Burnham has a compelling back story to help his cause, one that he is not afraid to use. He is a Scouser from a working-class family who went to a comprehensive school and then Cambridge University before climbing into Tony Blair’s cabinet while still in his 30s. While he is proud of much of what New Labour did in government, he says he could feel “the connection was fraying with people, particularly in constituencies like mine” (he was MP for Leigh in Greater Manchester), during Blair’s “middle years”.

To bolster his theme he tells the story of how, when culture secretary in 2009, he went to Anfield for the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster and had what he calls “a kind of existential sort of crisis”. As he was addressing the crowd, Burnham was drowned out by chants of “Justice for the 96” from fans angry that a Labour government had not yet agreed to an independent panel to investigate the tragedy.

Keir Starmer with Andy Burnham and Angela Rayner on a Metrolink tram, during a visit to Manchester in April.
Keir Starmer with Andy Burnham and Angela Rayner on a Metrolink tram, during a visit to Manchester in April. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/PA

“Here’s me, the professional politician, in a suit, that’s gone all the way up to culture secretary, but I’m confronting people I went to school with, people who knew my family, in that ground were people that I’d grown up amongst. When I walked out to address the Kop I was almost walking to the edge of the gulf between the government I was in and the people I’d grown up amongst, it was that stark for me. It was really … you know, if I wasn’t the minister I would have been shouting at the minister. How do I reconcile that? I did in the end by what we then did afterwards.”

Burnham recognises that Starmer’s first year as leader has been uniquely testing and appreciates that he had to be cautious during the pandemic. But Burnham was evidently dismayed by the absence of any strong policy messages from the national party before 6 May. He believes the task Labour now faces in rebuilding trust is urgent. “I don’t think we can afford to lose any more parliamentary seats like Hartlepool,” he says.

What angers him most is Labour’s failure to develop a message on social care. It is a subject he thinks Starmer and previous Labour leaders could and should have talked and done a lot more about. “This goes back to more than a decade of leaders from my point of view. There’s been a cautiousness on social care, a tentative approach, when actually it’s a hugely resonant, emotive issue for the public. And in the last 12 months I think more people have understood what’s wrong with social care because of what’s been unfolding before our eyes.”

This lack of passion is something that stems, he believes, from the same lost connections between politicians and people’s lives. “This is what we try and do in the way we go about things here,” he says. “Something is either right or it’s wrong.” For years Labour has, he adds, been so worried about spending and tax levels that it has led to “a sort of caution that becomes a bit suffocating”. So shocking is the failure of Labour both when in government and since to find an answer to social care that Burnham even doubts that the modern party would have the vision to create the NHS today. “I ask myself, could the Labour party that I’ve been associated with in the 20 years that I’ve been in elected politics … could it create the NHS? And no is the only thing I could say, because it hasn’t seemingly got that wherewithal any more to take on a big injustice.”

So as Labour and Starmer struggle and he is increasingly talked about as the next Labour leader, is he interested in coming south again to take charge of the national party? The answer is no. At least not now. He won’t challenge Starmer or anyone else. But when the time is right, it is a definite yes. He has already stood twice for the leadership, first in 2010 when Ed Miliband won and then again in 2015, when he came a distant second to Jeremy Corbyn. Burnham says that had he won against Corbyn, Labour would now be in a better place. “I think we would be stronger in taking on the government on levelling up. I don’t think we’d have lost as many northern seats had I won.” He does not, however, want to make it three failed leadership bids on the trot and says it will be up to the party to be clear it wants him next time.

For the meantime he has settled on his formula for answering the million-dollar question. “I’m here, I’m going to serve this term [as mayor]. I’m going to take the mandate that the public here have given me. And the answer is no. I will not be returning to Westminster any time soon, that is clear. But if there comes a point where it is clear to me that the Labour party, having not thought me right twice, suddenly thinks ‘Well actually you probably are now, because of the way the world has changed’, then, as I say, I will put myself forward to lead the Labour party.”

Contributor

Toby Helm

The GuardianTramp

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