Andy Burnham Interview: On The Labour Leadership, Iraq, Trident, Economic Credibility and Corbynmania

Andy Burnham is still the bookies' favourite in the Labour leadership race, despite the Corbyn 'surge'. As the contest enters its final furlongs, the boy from Aintree tells us how he hopes to win by more than a nose.

Andy Burnham is beaming. And after arguably his best week since the Labour leadership race began, it’s no wonder. A new poll put him in the lead as the public’s preferred candidate, his ‘workers manifesto’ garnered headlines and he won endorsements from TV’s David Walliams, the Sunday People and teenage Milifan Abby Tomlinson.

But for the Shadow Health Secretary the real breakthrough was in football. “What did cheer me up this week was Wayne Rooney in an Everton kit,” he says, referring to the Manchester United star playing in a charity match for his old club, Burnham’s beloved Blues.

“I was amazed that United let him do it, but he’s on the way back clearly. Wazza will be getting a call from the new leader of the Labour party, saying ‘Don’t delay it, January transfer window! Come home the prodigal son, all is forgiven!’”

Liverpool-born Burnham is the son who’s happiest when he’s back home in the North West with his tight-knit family, many of whom are Evertonians. Sitting in a hotel next to Haydock Park racecourse, just a short drive from his house and Leigh constituency, the bookies' favourite in this contest is every inch the local boy made good.

Wazza, briefly back in Blue

But it’s the prodigal Labour Party, or rather its reputation for not being careful with the public’s money, that he’s most worried about.

And although he’s keen to bring the party back in tune with its members on a range of issues, Burnham believes that the first task for the leader will be to reassure non-Labour Britain that they’re serious about economic credibility.

With all the leadership contenders braced for the posting out of ballot papers on August 14, he says that he’s the only one who combines a mea culpa on the economy with an ability to unite the party.

“As we enter the final stages of this Labour leadership I think as people are coming to vote, there are three things that they are looking for,” he says. “Number one: vision. Has the person got a vision for the party and I think what the leadership election has shown is that people are crying out for a big vision, they want a break with this retail politics, they are sick of it, fed up with the style of politics for the last 20, 25 years.

“Number two can that vision unite people, is it a unifying vision? And number three, does it have credibility at its heart. My pitch is that I’m the only candidate in this race who can meet all three of those tasks.”

Yvette Cooper has different views on Labour's pre-crash deficit

On fiscal credibility, he differs markedly from Yvette Cooper, who has rejected claims that the deficit was too under Labour before the financial crash of 2008. Instead, Burnham insists the deficit was just too high.

“Why do I say it was too high? I was Chief Secretary to the Economy when Alistair Darling asked me to bring it down. I am not just saying it now. I was asked to bring down the deficit, so I did a spending review in 2007 under Alistair’s direction that grew public spending at a lower level than overall growth in the economy,” he says. “And the Tories agreed. But in truth we had probably should have been acting a little sooner.”

Burnham makes clear that Labour will only get permission to be heard by the voters if it can reassure them on the issue starkly illustrated by that famous Question Time general election special, when Ed Miliband was monstered over the ‘there is no money left’ note.

“There’s a study that Tony Blair quoted recently, the new Oxford Review of Economic Policy which is detailed assessment and a very fair one,” he says. “One of the conclusions is: ‘the crisis was in origin essentially an external shock’. So, as we all agree spending didn’t cause the crisis...‘Although its impact on the UK was exacerbated by a combination of light touch financial regulation..” - Labour did agree to that - “..a macroeconomic framework with a restricted focus..” - not enough manufacturing maybe, a wider industrial policy, I would agree with that.

“And a third part, ‘a fiscal policy that might have been slightly tighter in the years preceding the crisis’. I think that is a pretty authoritative pronouncement on Labour’s record.

“If we had said that at the start of the last Parliament ie owned up to those three things, but then said ‘do you know what? we ran a strong economy from 1997 to 2007, we ran more surpluses in our first term than the Tories did in 18 years, we did fix the roof while the sun was shining, the roofs of the schools and hospitals’, if we had said all of those things, I think the public are always prepared to give you more credit for what you did right, if you are honest about where you went wrong. It was a big mistake to vacate that space.”

The Burnham manifesto

Burnham is in Haydock Park to film his manifesto for YouTube, part of his video-led approach to this campaign. The manifesto calls for an alternative to the ‘punishing’ austerity of George Osborne, using tax rises, growth and productivity to balance Britain’s books in a ‘fairer’ way.

“Being honest, in places, we do have to be tough about public spending. My argument is do we do it as part of a balanced plan. And a plan that doesn’t have an arbitrary timetable, that is about bringing the economy on a long term trend back to a sustainable basis.”

But as critics claim Jeremy Corbyn has billions of pounds of unfunded spending promises, Burnham is quick to point up the difference. “I’m going to say how I’m going to pay for things that I’m proposing - without promising £55bn of public spending,” he says, pointedly.

Asked which parts of the party his message may not appeal to, he’s quick to get something off his chest. “I’ve never moved. I hate this challenge that I’m blowing in the wind. I dug my place out a long time ago and I haven’t moved from there. That is a place in the Labour mainstream,” he argues.

Back to the future with Corb-Benn mania?

From limiting the private sector in public services to building more council housing to returning railways to public ownership, the Leigh MP believes he’s more in tune with that ‘mainstream’. “I used the phrase that I’m the beating heart of Labour in this contest. And that’s where it is. Those on the more extreme left or more extreme right probably may not agree with it, but in terms of the heart of the party I think it speaks to that.”

His mum Eileen recently told the Daily Mirror that Corbyn would take Labour back to the Tony Benn days of the early 1980s. Has she got a point? “She always has a point,” he smiles.

Mrs Burnham also said that her middle son was called ‘Seven Eights’ at school - because “he couldn’t remember that seven eights are 56”. Again he smiles. “It was on Guido [Fawkes’ website]. As a slight riposte, I did get an ‘A’ in my ‘O’ level - not just GCSE - in Maths. ‘O’ level was pretty demanding I would say.”

Burnham has long been a target for not just right-of-centre websites, but also Tory ministers and Conservative-supporting newspapers like The Sun. He gives as good as he gets, often counter-attacking with gusto. But given that he needs to win back Tory voters, does he understand just why many of them voted the way they did in May? Is he in touch with those floating voters - in marginals like the nearby Warrington South - who felt the Conservatives were better trusted with the economy?

“You’d be surprised. I get quite a lot of people who say ‘d’you know what, I don’t vote for your lot at all, but I like you’,” he says. He points to a recent Tweet from a Tory who said they’d vote for him. But does he know any Tory voters personally?

“Where I grew up is three or four miles over there,” he says, pointing in the direction of his home town. “And it’s those little Warrington suburbs, where lads I knew growing up are classic floating voters who do vote and have voted Tory. So I very much understand where they are coming from. Labour used to be the party that helps everybody get on in life and that is where we should be.”

He got aspiration

His manifesto, which is in many ways more radical than his “aspirational socialism” programme when he last ran for the leadership in 2010, is aimed squarely at those voters who felt the party in 2015 wasn’t on the side of those who want to ‘get on’ in life.

“I don’t just pluck out of the air ‘oh that sounds a bit left wing, and I’m in a Labour leadership election, let’s have that. The policies I’ve picked, I picked very carefully to have broad appeal,” he says.

“I’ve been talking a lot lately about the 1945 Government and the 70-year anniversary, Why is that Government still talked of? It’s because it had something to say to everybody. The policies were broad in their reach and helped people get on in life, housing policy, the NHS, all those things.

“My big bugbear in recent times is this retail politics where you use these marketing tools to break down the population into these little groups, and say ‘oh let’s have this little policy just to appeal to the urban professionals’, all this kind of crap. I hate it. I feel this is where we’ve gone wrong. You need policies of scale that speak to everybody.”

One key policy he’s most passionate about is the extension of technical education, with an UCAS-style scheme for apprenticeships and a new focus on vocational skills. “Many of those lads that I’m talking about, floating voters, done alright for themselves, self employed or working in a small company because the big employers have gone, they are all in small companies, that’s exactly where they are.

“Why don’t we give more help to them to get a qualification that helps you through life? ‘Why am I having to pay for myself to go back through college in my twenties?’ That’s very much where I think a lot of maybe Conservative leaning voters are, a school system that supports a modern economy.”

Jeremy Hunt's care cap proved controversial

Both his housing and social care policies will also appeal to those lost to the Tories, he argues. “The dream of home ownership has died for millions of people in this country. so how do you have a housing policy that really speaks to it. The Tory policy of Right to Buy for housing associations is like you just pluck out a few winners who get a lucky lottery ticket we’ve got to have a plan that helps everybody get a decent home,” he says.

“A National Health and Care Service, yes that’s got very Labour roots in its feel and collective approach to care. But the interesting thing about that policy, if you go through it in its most ambitious form, in the same way that the NHS protected people from medical bills, so a national health and care service allows people to pass on their homes.

“The Tory care cap doesn’t let them do that, it takes the average home off a couple, it doesn’t let them pass it on. It will affect everybody. In the south of England, it’s massively resonant in the south of England. Even though the Mail and the Telegraph will come after it, I’m confident enough I can sell that policy to the country.”

On immigration too, Burnham knows that former Labour voters drifted to not just the Tories in key marginals but also to UKIP in many ‘safe’ Labour seats. Early in the leadership contest, he mentioned a UKIP voter who told him at the election that he felt isolated at work because his colleagues didn’t speak English. What’s his practical solution to that?

“There’s more an emotional response to it which we as a party haven’t understood. What he said to me was that’s my reality, that’s my life. But he wasn’t a xenophobe. ‘My life has got less enjoyable because of the changes and then I see people on telly like you saying immigration is a good thing and I just feel you don’t understand me’.

“That is the feeling that is played out across those constituencies in the midlands, the east coast, the north. It’s not that they are expecting the earth or saying stop the world we want to get off. It’s more a sense of life has changed for us and you lot just don’t seem to get that or to care.

“I don’t think they are expecting a massive list of promises as much as they want an honest engagement with their reality and some beginnings of some practical answers. This is why I’m saying respecting the contributory principle in respect of accessing the benefit system and social housing is important. Tougher rules to stop undercutting of wages is important.”

A bit different from the Cross of St George

Burnham says the European Union can do more to protect the ‘going rate’ for local workers undercut by migrants on a minimum wage. “I think we’ve got to have rules to protect a skilled workforce because we will never sell Europe to voters in these parts if it becomes a race to the bottom. Why would they vote for it?”

As for the general election, he says Labour canvassers often betrayed their discomfort about the subject of immigration. “Labour people started to avoid people’s eye, thinking ‘oh god, here comes immigration’, they’d start shuffling around.”

Another proposal he has is to use unspent EU structural funds as a ‘rapid migration fund’. “I’ve taken this on board very seriously and I’ve spoken to the President of the European Parliament about it,” he says. And a recent influx of Romanians in his own constituency is proof of the pressures.

“There’s a part of Leigh that has seen real pressure on primary schools as in new arrivals. And the pressure is not just numbers, it’s the effect on the school of having a lot of kids all of a sudden speaking a different language, pressure at the GP surgery, other ways in which things change. Communities are just expected to cope with that at the moment, the local government funding system doesn’t pick it up. There should be a quick drawdown for communities most affected by EU migration.

“They should be allowed to make an application to structural funds to employ a GP, a teacher, whatever it might be because again at the moment they are just left to cope with it. And why should the just be left to cope with it?”

Unrepentant on migrants

Burnham hopes that British politicians would not resort to the kind of language used by Donald Trump recently about Mexican immigrants being drug dealers and ‘rapists’. And he says that immigration will play a key role in the coming EU referendum.

“The minute I decided to stand in this leadership election, I started to think about the European referendum. I think that is going to be a defining moment in politics. In many ways, not just for us in the Labour party. For the Tories I think it’s going to cause a lot of internal turmoil for them.

“I think it also might not be everything UKIP hope it to be, it might reveal there is a bigger support for the European Union than they might think. But it could be a risk to us as well. And in the same way that the Scottish referendum cemented a feeling that we weren’t for them any more it could do the same here. I’ve been very focused on it. I think UKIP will try and make it all about immigration. And I want Labour to be ready for that argument. that’s why i’m talking about very practical things.”

But when a balanced approach is explained to the voters, they listen, Burnham argues. “The really reassuring thing is I’ve been talking in this way around Leigh for quite a while at meetings. And I always say ‘look: free to work, not free to claim, rules to protect people, more help for communities affected but in the end support for people who want to come here’. And I say ‘is that broadly where you are’? And most people say yes, that’s it. I’ve really tested it with salt of the earth, decent people and I am certain that the moral majority is in that territory.”

Does that include fairer treatment of asylum seekers, not least those in Calais? “Absolutely. There’s a point of balance in this immigration debate. It’s taken a while to find it, but I think it can be found in a way that eventually gets us to where most people are. I don’t detect a rising xenophobia, I think most people are of the view, if people want to come to work and contribute, great.”

Waiting for Chilcot

One of the biggest calls the next Labour leader will face is over Syria. David Cameron has made plain that he wants to extend the British role in the Iraq bombing campaign to target ISIL in their heartland. Does Burnham believe that there are currently enough grounds to back Cameron in a Parliamentary vote?

“The tests are quite big,” he says. “There’s a very large one about legality first, because it’s not like the 2013 situation [when Ed Miliband led his party to defeat Cameron on Syria]. This isn’t an invitation by a democratic government to come in, is it? I’m struggling with that myself.”

Michael Fallon and Cameron have both suggested they do indeed have legal cover, but Burnham begs to differ. “I think the legality is quite a big one given Labour’s past, Chilcot. That is something that can’t be glossed over and shouldn’t be.”

Dan Jarvis, Burnham backer and military adviser

The Shadow Health Secretary has been closely advised by former para Dan Jarvis, who has been invited into Downing Street with Harriet Harman to discuss the military situation in Syria. He says he would want to see ‘the nature of the proposition’ before making a decision, but is clearly sceptical.

“I of course wouldn’t rule it out and we will do the responsible thing and ISIL need to be disrupted of course they do. We would look at it seriously,” he says.

“The message I would just send back to Cameron at this stage is: treat us with respect because it’s not about the Labour party. The Opposition is the country in this, we’ve got to test what they are saying on behalf of the country.

“And if they try and bounce the Opposition into this they are not treating the country with respect. We had a swirl of gossip, Parliament was going to be recalled and then we hear the first week when the new Labour leader is elected, it’s going to be right back [in the Commons]. Personally, that would be disrespectful to the country.”

Some defence experts have also pointed out that even if the RAF were to take part in action in Syria, their role would be largely of symbolic rather than military value, given the sheer dominance of the US. Is he influenced by that too?

“It feels that might be right to me. Symbolism sometimes is important in these matters to show there’s a bigger international effort and it’s not just the US versus the extremist forces.

“But I don’t see the urgency myself. I don’t see the urgency at the moment unless they can convince me why it has to be that week in September. I’m getting excellent advice from Dan. And it’s advice that is this: we are not scarred so much that we won’t say Labour should play its part where it’s justified, but I think people would expect me to learn the lessons of the last decade and proceed with caution and that’s what I will do.”

War criminal, really?

Corbyn’s opposition to the bombing in Iraq, as well as Syria, is well known. But what did Burnham think of his rival’s recent remarks suggesting that Tony Blair could be tried for ‘war crimes’? Some of his colleagues found those comments went too far, did he?

“I would say so. I think that is a very provocative statement. We all lived through that period, it was an intense period where judgements were made. People can look back with hindsight, but it was an incredibly difficult period where the world felt like was in a huge state of flux post September 11.

“The thing people have got to remember is Tony Blair’s interventions relieved huge amounts of suffering in the Balkans, in Sierra Leone. We as a Labour party, let’s have a bigger picture and respect those who took difficult decisions.”

On Trident too, Corbyn has a distinctive position that is popular among those sections of the Labour party, and the SNP, that have long advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Yet with many trade unions wanting the renewal of Trident because of the jobs their members depend on, Burnham points out that the current policy remains in place. “The leader could always try and make a case to the party,” he says. “But it’s not one man or woman’s decision, it’s a party decision that the party would have to debate collectively. I think more broadly there is an appetite for more collective decision making.”

Everton's Neville Southall staging his infamous half-time protest

Still, he is not exactly enthusiastic about Corbyn’s other idea of reviving Shadow Cabinet elections. “I wouldn’t rule it out. I wouldn’t say I’d do it straight away. I think it’s got pluses and minuses. There’s a lot of people who do recommend it. I’d be open to hearing the arguments on it.

“But I think building a team and a team that works rather than a team that is more randomly put together I feel the team matters. From my point of view Labour needs to get on with the job of Opposition. I don’t think we were a good enough opposition in the last Parliament.

“We need to get on with the job, get straight up and at ‘em. That means choosing a team and the trouble with Shadow Cabinet elections is it doesn’t allow you to choose a team that will work as a dynamic.

“And the team does matter in politics, I am a team player. I haven’t rebelled against the Labour whip 500 times. That matters from me. I have moved Labour policy in many ways, the health service, on Hillsborough, on the welfare bill recently.”

Football, as ever, is not very far away from the Burnham worldview. “I use this analogy and it’s a correct one: I am football man and I apply the same principles to my politics,” he says. “Have it out in the dressing room at half time when no one else is listening, but when you’re on the pitch you have an obligation to be a unit you do not then openly rebel.

“You don’t a Neville Southall [the Everton goalkeeper in the 1980s] and sit in the goalmouth at half time, - although I love Neville Southall and he’s backing my campaign I should hasten to add. Maybe he had good reasons then and he was pushed to his limits!”

A team effort?

The leadership race to date has been at times pretty vitriolic, with sharp barbs from each of the candidates making it sometimes difficult to imagine them all sitting together nicely afterwards. Would he give all of his rivals big jobs in a Burnham Shadow Cabinet if he wins, or are all bets off once the contest is over and no one is guaranteed a job?

“The four candidates in this race all hold pretty distinctive positions on the Labour spectrum,” he replies. “That’s one of the good things about this race that I think the last one never quite offered. I think we all have fairly carved out positions that are quite clear and each of them has a body of Labour opinion and sympathy that sits around it.

“So it will be incumbent on the new leader to knit that back together. I think it would be to make a great mistake to allow the incipient factionalism in the party to take hold and it look like one side has won over another, that would be a great mistake.

“I’ve not decided but my instincts say each of those people has said something of value in this race, has added to it and made it better by being in it and has said something the party needs to listen to. And so you would want those threads to be pulled back together.”

Corbyn in particular has attracted huge crowds wherever he speaks and has pulled in a new, youthful breed of members as well as returnees. Would he merit a party role, maybe as party chair, if not a Shadow Cabinet post?

“I’m not saying Shadow Cabinet, but I’m not rejecting the idea of a role,” he says. “When I say everyone’s added something to this race, what Jeremy is doing that is of real value to the Labour party is breaking us out of this shallow retail politics and that is an important service to the Labour party. There’s a yearning for bigger ideas that are worth getting excited about and voting for at election time.

“Particularly among young people many of whom have been drawn to Jeremy’s campaign, those young people deserve bigger answers than modern politics has been serving up.”

Ed Miliband, Labour's cling-on

But should he become leader and things don’t work out, if his poll ratings were to drag down his party like Ed Miliband’s, what then? Tom Watson recently told HuffPostUK that each of the candidates would have enough self-awareness to step aside voluntarily if things got bad. Does he agree or does the new leader have a mandate that can see them through the full five years to 2020, no matter what?

“I think he’s got a point, as ever, Tom,” Burnham replies. “I’m not that kind of person. You can’t live in these parts that I live in and not get some pretty down to earth advice on a pretty regular basis.

“And if it wasn’t working, people wouldn’t hold back, partly out of regard for me I guess. I’m not that kind of person who will cling on. I know it sounds corny, but Liz accused me of wanting to put the party first but I do. I genuinely do, always have, always will.

“I’m not an individualist politician. You put the party first so that it can be a force for the people, for the country. A disunited, ragged party doesn’t help anybody. Labour in the ‘80s proved that. So party must come first, so that you then are in a position to work for the people.

“My career has always been defined by that approach and it wouldn’t change. I’ve got enough about me to know if it wasn’t working and I wouldn’t drag Labour down with me.”

Derek Hatton, very much a Red Scouser

That disunited, ragged image was all too evident in Liverpool in the 1980s as Militant infiltrated the party. Neil Kinnock, who is now backing him, fought titanic battles to end those years and yet there have been claims that the new £3 supporter system is breeding a new ‘entryism’ for far Left groups. So, how surprised was he that former Militant member Tony Mulhearn attended one Corbyn event in Liverpool recently?

“A little. I’ve seen it here in this area. We’ve had somebody who was, I don’t think we ever proved this, was linked to Militant in Liverpool. He then formed an independent party in this area, basically defined by being anti-Labour and recently turned up on our membership list. So something is happening. It was incredible to me. His driving force in politics was attacking Labour.

“I don’t doubt for a second there are lots of enthusiastic people who have joined who want something bigger from politics who are drawn to what Jeremy is saying. But there are others underneath who don’t have the Labour party’s best interests at heart. I would just say Jeremy does need to take care about that.”

"I'll be David Cameron's woman problem"

One trump card that Corbyn lacks, of course, is that he’s not a woman. Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall have both stressed how it’s time the party had a female Prime Minister. How powerful a message is that, not least when second preferences will play a key role in the election?

“I understand it. But it can’t be the answer can it? It can’t overrule everything else. The question people need to ask here is: where is Labour now and what does it mean?” Burnham says.

“Given our problems in Scotland, with UKIP, I don’t think it follows that it has to be a woman to answer that. I personally don’t see how it can be the trump card because you’ve got to pick a leader that Labour needs now in terms of its challenges and it’s got to be the right person.

“People do look at the whole picture and vote for a whole range of reasons. I don’t think they make an abstract decision saying it’s got to be a woman or a northerner or a leftwinger. I think they both match up their instincts with what does the party need.”

Burnham's Got Talent? Yes, say David Walliams

Burnham’s own pitch has been to try to reconnect on an emotional level with the voters and with his party. It’s a message that has been helped by endorsements from Milifan Tomlinson (“I was very pleased about that”) and Walliams this past week. “I first met David at a reception for Cardiac Risk in Young and that was 10 years ago or more,” he says.

“We got on well, he was really warm. and kept in touch on and off over the years. And he helped me launch Free Swimming when I was Culture Secretary because he’d just done the Channel. I have a lot in common with him, i have real respect for him. It’s an endorsement of a kind that means a lot... I don’t want to reveal his politics, but we kind of have a similar outlook on life.”

Not feeding the party's soul?

With some observers believing Kendall appears to have lost early momentum in the race, and is now in fourth place, what does he put that down to? Has her message been too tough for the party?

“I haven’t taken the same approach,” Burnham replies. “I’m not against telling the party some home truths. And I have in this campaign. I’ve said some stuff on the economy which I thought needed to be said, also on immigration, this thing about avoiding people’s eye.

“But we’ve also got to feed the soul of the party a little. Not because you want to pander to it in any way, but this is a moment, we are not just reacting to immediate events.

“This is a moment when you’ve really got to say ‘why should they put their trust in me?’ You are the guardian of the party’s values and it’s soul and it’s a big thing that you are asking the party to do. You are asking for their trust.”