Long considered a Labour leader-in-waiting, Andy Burnham now has it all to do. “It’s not the leadership contest I expected,” he tells Grant Woodward.
SHOULD Andy Burnham have a soft spot for metaphors, it’s tempting to think there is one staring him in the face as he arrives at Clements Hall in York. Here for a lunchtime meet-and-greet with local Labour party members, a sign warns of uneven flagstones leading to the community centre’s front door. The path that lies ahead for him and his party, it is fair to say, appears far more precarious.
As if Labour’s dismal showing in this May’s general election were not bad enough, the emergence of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as a frontrunner in the resultant leadership election has taken everyone by surprise, raising the very real prospect of an inter-party split.
Still, at least Burnham should be able to count on the support of the 80 or so members seated in neat rows inside Clements Hall. As soon as he has finished speaking they queue politely for selfies and to pick his brains on everything from further education to funding for mental health car. One young mother inexplicably plonks her baby – replete with ‘Leader of the House’ t-shirt – in his arms.
“Not bad for a lunchtime,” notes one of Burnham’s campaign aides as the final stragglers melt away. Maybe so, but Corbyn’s rallies are pulling in 10 times this number and he now has the public backing of Unison, which says his anti-austerity message chimes with its more than one million members.
It is a blow for Burnham, who might have hoped to win the support of the main public sector trade union after his warnings, as shadow health secretary, that the Tories are trying to move towards NHS privatisation.
Then there are the polls, some of which put Corbyn anywhere between 17 and 20 points ahead. If panic is starting to set in, however, Burnham is not showing it just yet.
Those numbers don’t match up with the polling conducted by his campaign and he consequently takes them with a hefty pinch of salt. “Is it the leadership election I thought I’d be fighting? No,” he says, allowing himself a quick chuckle. “Jeremy’s entry into the race has shaken things up a little. What he has had to say has resonated with people, but rather than being negative about that we should be asking why.
“I think the answer is that the public are sick of politicians talking in soundbites and want to see them looking like they believe in something, which Jeremy does. I think people want a Labour party that believes in something again.”
So what does Burnham – a man described as a reed in the wind by the infamous Lord Sewel during a break in his alleged hoovering of class-A drugs – believe in? “I believe in a truly comprehensive education, for instance, I want to see the end of NHS privatisation and to help this generation have the same opportunities that we took for granted. But we’re not going to get past first base if it looks like Labour’s promising the earth but isn’t bothered about the public finances.
“We’ve got to both have an inspiring vision and be clear about how we’re going to pay for it – and that’s what I’m offering, which is distinct from what Jeremy is saying.”
I wonder then, as a former chief secretary to the treasury, what went through Burnham’s mind when Ed Miliband insisted Labour hadn’t overspent in government, a claim pinpointed as the moment he lost any remaining shred of public confidence?
“It’s quite a finely balanced argument,” he contends. “We ran more surpluses in our first term than the Tories did in 18 years but policies became too loose in the middle part of the last decade and we recognised there was a need to get the deficit down. The trouble was that before the ink was dry on that spending review, the crash came.
“This is one of the lessons to be learned. We should have given a more honest account of our economic record, both to fight the Conservatives’ myth of ‘Labour’s mess’ and to acknowledge what we didn’t get right. I believe if we had done that the public may have then been more ready to give us credit for what we did get right.
“We did fix the roof when the sun was shining, you know, the roofs of the schools and the hospitals. The fabric of the country was in a pretty poor state when we came into government. We should have dug in and done a better job of defending ourselves.” This is one of Burnham’s constant themes. He bemoans a Labour that has become “frightened by its own shadow” amid the crumbling of confidence in the wake of its worst election performance since the 1980s.
He insists the party should be proud of what it achieved, that it has allowed the Tories to rewrite history. “We repaired the social fabric of Britain,” he says. “In terms of the schools, the hospitals, the basic infrastructure. For God’s sake, if we’re not proud then why should the public think we did anything worthwhile?”
He describes himself as a “mainstream Labour person”. “But also I want to apply it to the modern world. I don’t want Labour to look like we’re harking back to the past. I want us to be a party that helps people get on in life. How do we help people get on the housing ladder? How do we help people get a better job? How do we help young people get a job that will see them through life?
“These are things we need to be focused on more than renationalisation for the sake of it. So while I go along with some of the things Jeremy is saying, I believe you have to apply it to the modern world a bit more.”
When it comes to devolution, he says the rhetoric and reality of the Conservatives’ much-vaunted Northern Powerhouse simply don’t match up, exemplified by the decision to pull the plug on transpennine electrification within weeks of the election.
He hopes people in Yorkshire will “see through it for what it is”. “Devolution with a gun to your head is no devolution at all. George Osborne saying you can have it if you accept a single mayor for a huge swathe of Yorkshire doesn’t feel to me like devolution. It should be about trusting the people in that region to know what’s best for them. Instead he’s saying, it’s my way or no way at all.”
As for the way forward for his party, Burnham is adamant he is the one figure who can unite the factions exposed by Jeremy Corbyn, bristling at criticism that he is “Tory-lite”.
His warning as to what could happen if Corbyn does upset the odds is a stark one. “If people are thinking it’s ok just to rebuild Labour as a party of protest where we can simply shout from the sidelines and feel good about ourselves because we have a pure ideological position but with no real intent of turning that into a credible electoral force then that would be a grave mistake.
“There is a lot of doom and gloom,” he admits, as his aides wait to whisk him to his next engagement. “But I have a sense that the public want us to stop beating ourselves up and start holding the Government to account. I really do believe it’s all to play for.”