Andy Burnham: “There’s a sense that politics is fragmenting. The answer is devolution.”
Andy Burnham quit Parliament after concluding that the north was always going to ‘play second fiddle’ at Westminster. Now the Mayor of Greater Manchester believes Brexit has presented a chance to address the imbalance – and build a ‘healthier form of politics’. He talks to Kevin Schofield
Andy Burnham had only been the mayor of Greater Manchester for 17 days when it happened. Salman Abedi walked into the Manchester Arena – where American singer Ariana Grande was performing to thousands of excited young people and their parents - and detonated a bomb.
A total of 22 people – including an eight-year-old and eight teenagers – were killed in one of the single worst acts of terrorism in the UK.
“The moment I heard the news, I felt winded,” says Burnham as we sit in his small, neon-lit office in the centre of the city. “I couldn’t get my head around it, there was a sense of deep shock. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. But then I came in here at 4.30 on the Tuesday morning and the place was already pretty full. There is a strength in Greater Manchester and that helped me provide a response.”
The possibility that Manchester could be the target of an attack was at the forefront of Burnham’s mind when he was elected on 5 May.
In his first meeting in the role, with Greater Manchester Police chief constable Ian Hopkins, he asked whether the area was ready to respond to an attack of that nature. He was reassured by the answer he received – and by how the city and its institutions coped in the aftermath of the atrocity.
He says: “I was a little bit helped by ministerial experience in that I was in the Home Office as a junior minister on the day of the 7/7 attack and so I remember that very vividly, and when the attack happened at the Bataclan, I was Shadow Home Secretary so I responded in the House to that.
“Through that time, I developed a theme about our regional cities, and in my very first meeting in this job with the Chief Constable, I said to him ‘are we ready’. That thought had been in my head for some time. The truth was Greater Manchester had been planning and there is a strength here in terms of the relationships built over many years.”
Walking through the centre of the city today, it appears as if Mancunians have managed to put what happened behind them and move on. But Burnham says appearances can be deceptive.
“It’s an ongoing process and it’s a healing process. We probably haven’t even begun,” he says. “There’s a new reality for the families of the victims and they’re trying to understand that. They are forever part of Manchester, even those who don’t live in the city, and we will do whatever we can.
“There’s strong anecdotal evidence that it had a big impact on children because of the nature of the event – most people in Greater Manchester under the age of 16 will have walked through that room at some point, so it hit home very hard and continues to reverberate.
“People were clear here that the terrorists want to divide and cause hate, so the only right response is togetherness and solidarity.”
Westminster’s response to the attack has also thrown up the most controversial moment of Burnham’s seven-month tenure. Initially, the Government said it would cover all of Greater Manchester’s costs in dealing with the aftermath. The city estimated that £28 million would be required - £17 million to cover its immediate outgoings and a further £11 million for ongoing commitments. But two weeks ago, the mayor received a letter from Theresa May saying only that “reasonable” expenses would be remunerated, suggesting that she was reneging on the previous agreement.
Grainy footage emerged of Burnham’s response as he read out the letter at a council meeting. His frustrations at its “unsatisfactory” contents was clear for all to see. Within hours – and no doubt sensing yet another self-inflicted political wound – Downing Street backed down and agreed to settle the bill in full.
Burnham says: “The truth of the matter is at the time we were told ‘we will give you whatever help you need’. We put in the figures some time ago, but it didn’t feel to people here there was an engagement on that. Attention started to go elsewhere – which we fully understand – but there was a sense that they weren’t focusing on what was needed.
“But we didn’t go public on it. At no point did we want a sense that this was being used for point-scoring. It was only when we got the reply that it clearly wasn’t good enough. I don’t think the Prime Minister was well served by civil servants, and the quick recognition of that was very much appreciated. The engagement now is great and hopefully we can resolve it properly.”
Unsurprisingly, the former Labour Cabinet member says his first few months as mayor have “probably been more intense than I expected it to be”.
“When I stood for election I described it, to the annoyance of the other candidates and the mayor of Liverpool, as a Cabinet-level job that required Cabinet-level experience,” he says. “I look back and think that was true, it is similar to those roles I had before.
“The key thing is clarity about where we’re trying to go. That’s what I learned as a minister, you just have to be really clear about what it is that you’re trying to achieve and then by being clear you allow people to buy into the journey. There’s a lot of excitement here, people can see what we’re trying to do and therefore the buy-in comes more quickly.
“If we’d sat here this time last year and we’d gone outside and asked people about this role they would have said ‘oh another layer, a white elephant, we don’t really need it’. People aren’t saying that now. If I go out to do something around the city centre it’s ‘why are you doing this and why aren’t you doing that’. People have accepted the role pretty quickly.”
So much so that some Mancunians even stop him in the street for selfies – not bad for a lifelong Evertonian who, throughout his time at Westminster, was better known for his strong connections with that other great north-western city, Liverpool.
Burnham was also well-known – some may say notorious – for emphasising his northern-ness, and berating the Westminster establishment for paying little attention to anywhere north of the Watford Gap. He remains unrepentant.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m always carping on about it because I’ve got a lot of affection for (Westminster), but I felt in my 16-year journey in there I saw how it wasn’t going to solve what I wanted to do,” he says. “People take the Mick – fair enough, I was a bit of a stuck record on things relating to the north - but you have to be in politics.
“In the end, I came to the conclusion that the north is never going to get an equal hearing in Westminster. It plays second fiddle. We need to do something different, and just as the voices of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London got stronger through devolution, we need to do the same. Increasingly, I want to enable a new voice of the north to come through.”
He refuses to rule out returning to Westminster in the future – “you just don’t know what life will bring” – but firmly believes that devolution for the city regions has the potential to create a new politics in the UK at a time when the disconnect between the public and Westminster has possibly never been more acute.
He says: “I think it’s the answer to Brexit. I personally feel that Westminster created Brexit by neglecting parts of the country, particularly the parts that went through the biggest change at the back end of the 20th century, the places that had the big industry. It didn’t have good enough answers for those places and left them to deal with it on their own. That built a feeling that the Westminster and Brussels system combined was set up in the interests of some places and not others. That, I think, is the product of a system that is too centralised.”
Powers returning from Brussels in areas such as the environment, research and infrastructure should, Burnham insists, be devolved rather than hoarded at Westminster.
“It can’t possibly make sense for Westminster to bring all that power back and then keep that power in an over-centralised London-centric system,” he says. “Why has politics become so turbulent? I think there’s a sense that it is fragmenting. National government is struggling to hold it together, so the answer is devolution – let places speak for themselves, do more for themselves, put politics closer to people and let them rebuild a healthier form of politics.”
Using the powers and authority already at his disposal, Burnham has made tackling Greater Manchester’s homelessness problem his top priority. Harking back to the days when he was still viewed as a Blairite, he is working with the private sector to help come up with the funds – and the solutions – to a seemingly intractable problem. Well over £50,000 has so far been raised for a special fund to get rough-sleepers off the streets. But the mayor insists that simply throwing money at the problem cannot be the only approach.
“This has become a growing problem here over a number of years, so I think I’ve brought a new drive and quite a sophisticated policy response,” he says. It involves a plan to tackle rough sleeping by 2020 and in the longer run piloting new ways of supporting people away from the streets. It’s not just a roof over their head, but dealing with their other problems – whether it be alcohol or mental health.
“We’re taking the view here that the old ways of doing things, where the public sector would sit in a room and draw up a strategy, pass out instructions to public bodies and say, ‘you spend the public money’ – that isn’t going to work anymore. What we’ve done around homelessness is a new thing, where we’re asking business and the voluntary sector to write a plan with us. That is genuinely a new politics in action. Hopefully that epitomises a new approach to tackling big social issues. We feel we’ve changed the political debate about it.”
A confirmed Labour loyalist – he infuriated many of his former comrades for failing to publicly back the attempt to unseat Jeremy Corbyn 18 months ago – Burnham is nevertheless critical of his party’s approach to English devolution. This was exemplified, he believes, by its failure to allow either him or Liverpool metro mayor Steve Rotheram to speak from the platform at this year’s Labour conference in Brighton. And while Sadiq Khan did address the party faithful, it was only allowed after an almighty behind-the-scenes row.
“The party needs to show a clearer commitment to English devolution in my view,” says Burnham. “It is part of the renewal of our politics and I’d like to see all parties embrace this and make commitments to it. I think the failure to give a platform to one of the newly-elected metro mayors suggested that there was a lack of commitment to what’s being done. I think that was a mistake.
“I think that it is about the north renewing itself, rejuvenating and finding its voice, and Labour has got to surely be the platform that allows that to happen. I hope next year that that isn’t repeated. All political parties have to embrace the notion that letting people take control. I think the country s crying out for it, and the quicker we embrace it the better.”