Andy Burnham Interview: On Scrapping The 'Tampon Tax', Catholicism, Unpaid Internships And Falling Out Of Love With Morrissey

Andy Burnham Interview: Part 2

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. Here's the second instalment of our interview with him.

Tony Blair wasn’t afraid to tell his party some home truths. But on his famous line that ‘what works’ is what matters most in public services, Burnham couldn't disagree more.

Whereas Liz Kendall is the only candidate in the leadership election to praise Blair’s policies such as privately-run NHS treatment centres, the Shadow Health Secretary believes New Labour went too far.

“On the overall mantra of ‘what works’, it kind of bred a kind of managerialism, so I’ve never subscribed to that,” he says. “And one thing I find slightly frustrating is people claim that I’ve just changed my tune recently. I was the Health Secretary who changed it to prioritise the public NHS.

“The thing I want to get over in this contest is leadership is about having principles and then being prepared to stick with them, even when you are swimming against the tide a little bit. And I was back then with people like Alan Milburn and others criticising me.

“These aren’t new found positions for a leadership contest, these are things that I believe in. I believe in public service and it matters.”

PFI mistake?

So are there other areas where Labour went too far, like PFI hospitals, as Jeremy Corbyn suggests? "In other areas there was a kind of feeling that Labour had to slightly bow down in front of the market and that was inexorable and everybody just had to accept the advance of the market in all facets of life. And I don’t believe that, I never have believed that. It has a place definitely.

“But take the announcement I’ve made on railways [calling for their gradual return to the public sector through franchising]. I’ve been questioning that for some time the idea that markets are all powerful and all persuasive.

“PFI? Well I think sometimes people over-ascribe the ills of the world to PFI, there are certainly some poor deals out there. It’s just a different way of paying for public infrastructure. You can get good deals. You either pay the private sector in a lump sum for buildings and facilities or you do it on a mortgage basis. Yes there are some bad PFI deals and I wouldn’t be wanting a new wave of PFI, but I don’t think it’s quite as bad as some people say. It’s a mixed picture.”

Some trade unions have said compulsory competitive tendering was a disaster for their members’ jobs, pay and conditions. Would he want to review CCT or is that just all history now?

“I don’t think it’s history. If you take an area that I know well, social care, you’d be hard pressed to say that CCT and the markets had improved standards, you might find the opposite that it’s pulled it down to the lowest common denominator.

“That’s partly linked to the lack of funding for social care at a national level but the market hasn’t helped things, corners have been cut, profits have been made off the back of vulnerable people, staff have been exploited. And I think you really do start to see the limits of markets in a very serious way.

“I do believe you can roll that back. I do believe part of the answer is to ask the NHS to take a bigger coordinating role over social care and even a direct role of provision. That’s the policy I put forward at the election, I would be prepared to go further.”

Safer in his hands? The voters didn't think so

Ed Miliband famously threatened to ‘weaponise’ the NHS in the last election campaign, but it didn’t pierce the armour of a formidable Tory operation in key marginals. And should Burnham become Labour leader, many Conservatives are licking their lips at the idea of targeting him over Mid-Staffs and over his line on NHS spending from 2010.

In a remark that has been thrown at him in Prime Minister’s Questions ever since, Burnham said: “It is irresponsible to increase NHS spending in real terms within the overall financial envelope that he, as chancellor, is setting.” He then added that he knew that it was “counter-intuitive for a health spokesman to be advocating less spending on the NHS" but he wanted to highlight the flaws in George Osborne’s plans for health and social care.

Given that Cameron would lob that quote back at him every week if he becomes Labour leader, does he still stand by it? Burnham is robust.

“I stand by the quote 100% and in fact I believe it’s been borne out in spades actually,” he replies.

“If people just go with what I said, as opposed to the spin that Cameron put on it, what I said was ‘it’s irresponsible to give the NHS real terms increases’, that’s the first bit of the quote. What I went to say ‘if the way you pay for that is raiding social care’.

He's ready to 'weaponise' Burnham's NHS spending remarks

“So basically the logic of what Cameron and Osborne have done on public spending is they have said the NHS, as an island, matters more than everything else and therefore we will hollow out everything else around it to pay for the real terms increases.

“Sometimes you look at quotes and think ‘oh, I wish I hadn’t said that’. But this one, you look at the whole thing and ask am I happy with that? And I am 100% happy with that.”

Warming to his theme, he adds: “My argument is that is irresponsible in respect of social care because cutting social care to pay for the NHS does not make any sense. All that it means is you will have hospitals increasingly full of older people. And that is being borne out with every month and every year that passes, the truth of what I was saying has been borne out.”

Cuts to social care are only going to get worse, he argues, declaring that the Tory approach is “a classic example of people putting politics above policy”. “So it sounds good to say we are protecting the NHS, but when you actually work out how they are paying for that, cuts to care in the home makes no sense.”

But what if the Tories say they have simply made the cake bigger? “My point is make them one cake. If you keep making them two cakes where you are robbing Peter to pay Paul, you take money out of social care to put in the NHS or vice versa. You are still not addressing the fundamental problem which is you’ve got two systems which don’t connect with each other.”

An ageing society

When it comes to social care, Burnham has often cited the experience of his ‘nan’ to underline the flaws in the present system. His maternal grandmother Kitty died aged 91 in 2002. She was forced to sell her home and move into a care home. To add insult to injury, while in the care home, she had her wedding ring stolen off her finger.

“My argument is if you give social care responsibility to the NHS, it will start to spend NHS money differently. Because at the moment the NHS is programmed to pick up the pieces, to wait for people to fail and let them be scooped up by an ambulance and be taken to hospital," he says.

"My argument is fund it differently, pay the NHS by 'year of care' so a vulnerable person it gets a budget for a year to pay for that person. And if you paid the NHS in that way, it would have an incentive to move into the home and provide social care.”

Burnham's old school was closed and replaced by this failing academy

As his grandmother’s experience proved, the personal is often political for Burnham. His childhood Catholic comprehensive school was less than a mile away from Haydock Park. It has since closed and merged with another school to form an academy under the last Coalition, but is now classed as a failing school in ‘special measures’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in his manifesto, one of Burnham’s most radical proposals is to return academies and Free Schools to local authority oversight.

When he was at school, he shared with a lot of working class pupils a slight guilt that he ought to go out and get a job at 16 to help his family, rather than go on to higher education. His mother kept repeating to him ‘you are going to university’, yet it was a spot of work experience that in fact made his mind up.

“The best thing that probably happened to me at school was when it came to our work experience. I thought I wanted to be a holiday courier. I liked Spanish at school. I had set my heart on that, I wanted to speak the language while I was working.

Don't just book it, Thomas Cook it

“It was the fourth year, in ‘old money’. I went to my careers officer at school, ‘what do you want to be?’ he said. ‘Courier’, I said. ‘Right, we’ll try and find you something linked to it’.

“And I got two weeks work experience at Thomas Cook in St Helens. I spent two weeks shuffling brochures around the waiting room and I didn’t utter a word of Spanish. And I came back and thought ‘you know what? I think I’ll go to university’.”

And it wasn’t just any university in the end, it was Cambridge, where he went on to read English. “I was going to do Spanish but my English teacher got through to me,” he says. “Mr Harrington, Steve Harrington, amazing man, I’m still in touch with him, a real life-changing man. He boosted my confidence at a time when I didn’t and wouldn’t have thought I could go to Cambridge.

“He particularly lifted me from a student who could have done reasonably well and gone to a decent university to somebody who achieved much more than I thought I could.”


The teenage Burnham used to love listening to The Smiths in his bedroom - and live. “I saw them on the Queen is Dead tour at Salford University and I was right there in that, [David] Cameron, I’m afraid when I hear him [talk about the band], Christ, I was there in the heat of the moment.”

In 2010, when a new Morrissey compilation was due, the singer’s publicist even approached Burnham to interview him as a famous fan. In the end the honour went to poet Simon Armitage. “I was very flattered that he even thought I might be upto it, but then something happened and the publicist said it was off...But I’d still love to meet him, I never have.

“I was gutted because I was going to say to Morrissey when I met him that I kind of blame him in some ways for what I’m doing. Growing up in that era, I can remember when I was going through sixth form, Morrissey did have that narrative of being bigger than the place where you were and lifting yourself out of it, aiming bigger.”

Yet as he grew older, he fell out of love with The Smiths. “The point is, you like that because you are defining yourself against people and the rebellious streak and all that. But then when you get to your mid-20s you realise that Morrissey was for people who almost want to make themselves slightly superior, ‘I’m into the Smiths and I look down on people who listen to Level 42’.

“So I started to go off the Smiths in my mid-20s. Then as you get a bit more wisdom...When the Stone Roses came along, what I loved about them - and still do love about them - is they were for university students but also for lads in hi-vis jackets, they really are for everyone. I love that.”

The Middleton Guardian, spookily featuring its ex-intern

When Burnham came out of university in 1991, the other thing that united both students and ‘ordinary lads’ was the recession. And for the twentysomething Cambridge graduate, who wanted to have a crack at becoming a journalist, it was a bit of a shock.

“My dad had said to me when he tried to persuade me to go to Cambridge, all these doors would open for me and I’d never struggle to get a job, but it didn’t quite turn out like that,” he says.

“So I went back home, to here. I started applying to every media outlet in the land and got rejection letter after rejection letter. After writing probably about a thousand letters, the editor of the Middleton Guardian said - and I’ll never forget it - ‘I’ve just laid somebody off. There’s a desk and a computer, you can just come and work and do the job. But you won’t get paid’.”

Burnham spent three months working without pay as an intern, covering the usual local paper beats. “I had no choice, it was 1991, it was pretty grim out there, I had to scrape myself over to Middleton [20 miles away, the other side of Manchester]. It wasn’t a particularly great time. Who says I’ve never done a real job? It was fairly real actually. It got me going, but I’ve always had this thing about unpaid internships because of it.”

This week, his manifesto called for a ban on unpaid work placements of less than four weeks, though under his policy review by Pat Glass MP that period could be even shorter. There would be stricter definitions of unpaid work ‘experience’, involving shadowing a job holder, and ‘internships’ would have to be paid where tasks are performed.

Cambridge University

But Burnham has a wider point about his own connection with the world outside Westminster. Critics have looked at his CV and concluded a smooth, effortless path from Cambridge to New Labour special adviserdom, on to a safe seat and the Cabinet. But his unpaid stint on a local paper proved how he had to work for everything (he soon after got a paid job on some unglamorous trade magazines before ending up working for Tessa Jowell in Opposition).

“This is the thing again that annoys me. My mum and dad are always going on about this. They reckon a lot of people in the media don’t know me or understand where I’m coming from.

“And I think it is true. Nearly everything I do has a route into it from something that has happened to me in my life, practically all the things I’d say. And the reason I was so onto unpaid internships is for this reason. I saw people literally fly out of Cambridge into the Times, the Guardian and I’m thinking ‘well, where’s my Times and Guardian internship?’"

And never will?

Another area where the personal and the political interact is over his Catholic upbringing and his views on gay rights. Burnham points out that he was ahead of the curve on calling for gay marriage. “I am proud of the role I played. I was the first Labour frontbencher to call for equal marriage because Gordon had kind of ruled it out, we’d ruled it out as a government,” he says.

“I won’t name the person, but in the last leadership election I forced one of the other candidates to change their position on gay marriage. They had come out against it and I went public and the others had to change.”

As a former Health Secretary, does he now back the new Stonewall campaign to end the ban on blood donations by homosexuals (who cannot give blood if they have had sex in the last 12 months)? As the law stands, a gay man who has safe sex is barred from giving blood, but a straight man who has unsafe sex is not.

“I think sexuality really shouldn’t be the issue,” he says. “The issue is behaviour. Whatever your sexuality, heterosexual, bisexual, gay, if you are living a lifestyle that is risky then that is the issue for me, not the issue about sexuality. If you are in a very stable relationship, where’s the issue? That is where I think the system has got a kind of old fashioned take on it.”

So he’d support Stonewall’s call for a review by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood Tissues and Organs? “I would. Obviously you’ve got to do it with expert evidence behind it and of course that has got to be taken into account.”

Benedict's 'terrifying' vision worried Burnham

Burnham was hurt by suggestions that he’d abstained on a vote on same-sex adoption back in 2002, pointing out his wife was due to give birth at the time. He has also been criticised for voting for in 2008 for an Iain Duncan Smith amendment to include the ‘need for a father’ for babies born from IVF, with some gay rights campaigners saying that would discriminate against lesbian couples. Earlier this year, he said he supports the law as it now stands.

But the barbs have wounded him, precisely because he feels he has taken a strong stand on LGBT rights, a stand that has brought him into conflict with devout Catholic friends and family.

“I’ve had people attacking my lack of commitment at times and I’m keen to say I did play a leadership role. I’m Catholic by upbringing, but I’m not particularly religious now. My kids go to a Catholic school, so I still believe in the values and the grounding it gives you, I’m a very big believer in that.

“But because of my background, when I voted it always caused a kind of tension in terms of people I know, friends, family, so I do find it fairly hurtful when people accuse me of lacking commitment.”

On the Catholic church’s approach issues like gay rights and birth control, he feels it has lost touch with millions of ordinary British Catholics. “I find that quite difficult because if I think of the church of my youth, and the priests that I knew, the feeling and overriding mood was quite forgiving really, quite humane, humorous, irreverant, even the priests,” he says.

“That’s my memory of the church that I grew up with. And it seemed at some point with the change of Popes to click into a more judgemental mode and became much more obsessed with sexuality and issues related to sexual behaviour. And in that period, I drifted more and more away and Ratzinger said he wanted a ‘smaller, purer’ church, which I found quite terrifying actually.

“I did feel that those years were difficult ones but I have high hopes for the new Pope. A humble man with great warmth and a fantastic character. When the vote happened in Ireland recently I did hope that it might be a moment for him to move the church on. I still live in hope.”

He stresses that he still values his upbringing, adding “Catholic social teaching underpins my politics, we did have to read the catechism at school but it is powerful and strong and right”.

Still attracts VAT

Burnham is a proud feminist too. But how far will he go on policy? In the last election, Ed Miliband refused to pledge to scrap the 5% VAT on sanitary products, despite years of campaigning on the issue by many women.

Yet things like helicopter flights, herbal tea and jaffa cakes all attract zero VAT, while tampons - described as a 'non-essential' items - do. A petition earlier this year had nearly 200,000 signatures but neither George Osborne nor Miliband committed to scrapping the ‘tampon tax’. So, will he?

“Done...done. Absolutely done. I can’t believe it’s still in place,” he says. “Years ago I was involved in a campaign against this when Tessa was a shadow health minister when I was working with her.

“I can’t believe it’s still in place, I can’t believe we left it in place. I was one of three brothers growing up and that gives you a certain set of goggles on the world. But I am now the proud dad of two daughters and it doesn’t half change your perspective on life. “

Burnham with his wife 'Frankie', Marie-France van Heel

Burnham has the rebel streak that often comes with being the middle child of three. “People ask me at the odd hustings am I tough enough. Growing up the middle of three brothers, definitely is the answer to that,” he says.

“At school we always walked the tightrope me and my brothers between being in with the in-crowd and doing your work enough. I had a period during the middle of my time at school where I was a bit more in with the in-crowd than doing my work and I scraped into the O-level set.

“It’s not news, but I’ve been known to invade the odd playing surface over the years [he took part in an Everton pitch invasion at Highbury in his teens] so I did have a slightly rebellious streak,” he smiles. “I suppose you have to a little bit, to do this job.”

Given how important his family is to him, did he ask not just his wife but also his children (they are 15, 13 and 10) if he should run for Labour leader again? “Yeah. Our Jim is pretty savvy when it comes to politics, it’s amazing how much he’s absorbed and he’s a source of great wisdom,” he replies.

And did they say ‘go for it, dad?’, despite the huge attention and upheaval it will involve? “Yes. And we talked it through and it was very much a team effort, a family effort. I wouldn’t put them through it if I wasn’t sure. I do know what it’s entailed. I’ve had some [media] coverage which at times has been a bit beyond the line, but never mind. I think they understand and know why I’m doing it.”

Will UKIP do to Labour in England what the SNP did in Scotland?

He sits up, serious. “So why am I doing it? I’m pretty worried about Labour to be honest. I don’t take anything for granted now in terms of where the party will be.” What happened to Labour in Scotland could happen in England too, he warns.

“We are in a very volatile age when it comes to politics. I think Labour have placed ourselves in quite a dangerous position now. I don’t take anything for granted, I think the party has allowed itself to become out of touch.

“I feel Labour is in a very dangerous place, it’s time for really quite big changes both in terms of what we are saying, the vision, but also the way we are going about it. I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but I feel this is my moment. I feel I’m the right person to do a range of things that Labour needs to do simultaneously: unite, also get back in touch with people where we’ve lost, pursue a very different style of politics.”

His children are one of his main ways of getting away from it all. “Jimmy plays rugby league now and I make a lot of time to try and watch him. He’s 15 and bigger than me now! I’ve learned that to my cost, the old playfighting, I don’t do it! Which is a rite of passage for any dad.”

And other than spending time with his kids or listening to his music, does he have a favourite way to unplug and unwind, to totally get away from the phone, the emails, the office?

“Running. I’ve just been running. It’s played havoc with my running regime [the leadership contest]. I do find that is the best way if you’ve got something that’s bugging you, the best way to break out of a mode of mind, I ordinarily would run a lot,” he says.

He shoots, he scores

But the real release comes from football and Everton. “Everybody goes on about my obsession with football. But the reason why I love it so much is because it’s as much about family as it is about football.

“So you get an excuse to go to the pub with your dad and your brothers and our kids now, the girls come. And we are a big crew when we go to the match. Most times when it’s an Everton home game you are talking 15 of us maybe.

“And I can’t tell you how much of an antidote that is to the...I was going to say Westminster bubble, I’ve not mentioned it once, I won’t mention it again! - but it’s great. It’s just ‘switch off’ .

“We will always end up with a bit of what’s happened [in politics] but then just talk about the team, and it’s a totally different world. If there’s something that really lifts me out of it, it’s that.”

Whatever Wayne Rooney’s future career moves, Andy Burnham will keep on coming back home to Merseyside and the North West. Whether he does that as Leader of the Opposition or just a local MP, it’s now upto Labour party members to decide.



What's Hot