Andy Burnham: I’ve seen how Westminster works – and I don’t think it will ever change
After 16 years of ups and downs in Westminster, Andy Burnham could soon depart for a new challenge as mayor of Greater Manchester. He tells Kevin Schofield why he believes Parliament is unfit for purpose – and why only devolution can counterbalance the UK’s ‘in-built London bias’
After 16 years as an MP, Andy Burnham’s swansong in the House of Commons will probably come later this month. On 29 March, he will introduce a 10-minute rule bill which would make it a legal requirement for bereaved families to have equal access to funding in the event of a public inquiry.
The draft legislation has been given the shorthand title of the ‘Hillsborough law’ in recognition of the lengthy, and punishingly expensive, quest for justice by the families of the 96 Liverpool fans who died in the tragedy nearly 28 years ago.
Burnham insists there is cross-party support for the bill, and he hopes it will receive the government support it needs to pass into law. In many ways, it would be a fitting end to a Commons career which – should he succeed in being elected mayor of Greater Manchester on 4 May – has only a few weeks to run.
“It’s a bill that will propose lots of changes in respect of public accountability and the duty of public bodies to be transparent and open, plus provide equal funding for bereaved families,” he says. “An inquest should be a vehicle to access the truth, but families don’t get any help with their legal costs and have to scratch around to raise what they can.
“They end up in a courtroom still raw with grief and find themselves up against the highest paid QCs in the land funded by the taxman. It’s not even, and the truth does not get established.”
As well as Hillsborough, Burnham also points to the experience of those who have campaigned, so far unsuccessfully, for more than 30 years for an inquest into the Battle of Orgreave during the miners’ strike.
He says: “I’ve observed over the last year that things revert to the status quo. The decision not to hold a public inquiry on Orgreave was pretty devastating in my view. The home secretary stood at the despatch box and said there was no need because nobody died. Is that the test now? Nobody died so the government can do what it likes?
“Rather than Hillsborough being a watershed moment, it feels like the establishment is closing ranks again.”
First elected in 2001 at the height of New Labour, Burnham was initially seen as a Blairite and tipped for greatness. He became a minister aged just 35, and was in the cabinet two years later, firstly as chief secretary to the Treasury, then culture secretary and, finally, as health secretary.
Labour’s defeat in the 2010 election saw him taste opposition for the first time, but it also coincided with the vacancy for party leader. The ambitious Liverpudlian threw his hat into the ring, but his brand of “aspirational socialism” was rejected and Ed Miliband seized the crown.
Consolation for Burnham came in the form of a continued place on the Labour frontbench, with stints as shadow education secretary, shadow health secretary and – up until he announced his mayoral candidacy last year – shadow home secretary. There was also time for another tilt at becoming Labour leader in 2015, but despite being the early favourite, he was eventually swept away by the Corbynite tide.
So does he have any regrets about the way his Westminster career has panned out?
“I would do many things differently, but I would still have put myself forward for those leadership elections,” he says. “I felt I had something to say, and some of the things I said have come true as time has worn on.
“What a privilege it was to be a Labour health secretary and be culture secretary. I’ve tried to make a difference and now I hope to do it in a new way.
“I’ve got a lot of regard for this place and its traditions, but after 16 years I think it doesn’t equally represent all parts of the country, and doesn’t work as well for some areas as for others.”
Burnham insists that he has no plans to do a Boris Johnson by returning to Westminster – possibly with a view to another crack at the top job – at some point in the future.
He says: “I’m not doing this as a stepping stone. I’m taking on this role on a long-term basis to build up the voice of the north of England and Greater Manchester.
“I don’t rule anything out, but it’s not a temporary departure. I’m doing it to devote what remains of my political career to building up devolution.”
Burnham is clear in his mind that the north of England gets a raw deal under the current devolutionary arrangements, and that Westminster is no longer fit for purpose.
“What brought me here in the first place was challenging the north-south divide and, through the various things I’ve done over the years, that’s been my theme,” he says.
“I’ve seen how this place works and I don’t feel it will ever change. There’s an inbuilt London bias. The House of Lords is full of people who live inside the M25 – they’re making laws and policies. The government civil service is the same. I honestly don’t feel this world will truly change in the way I want to see it change.
“If it can ignore the north, it will ignore the north, because the frame of reference of people here is different. I feel what’s been delivered is a genuine change in the governance of England. It will be what we make it. The more we invest in it, the more significant that change will be.”
He believes that Labour’s experience in Scotland should serve as a warning to the party not to be half-hearted about devolution to the English cities. Indeed, he is damning about how his party’s attitude towards the Scottish parliament has led to the surge in support for the SNP and independence.
Burnham says: “Compare Wales and Scotland. In Wales, Labour invested in devolution – we called it ‘red shirt Labour’, a very patriotic approach. In Scotland, nobody left here to pick up the torch when Donald Dewar died and consequently we left a space for others to fill. The lesson is that Labour’s got to invest in devolution.
“We didn’t invest in our own creation. I remember that call being made in the government years. There were voices from Scotland saying ‘why is no Labour figure coming here?’
“Jim (Murphy) did do it eventually, but if he’d done it earlier maybe that would have been better. That was a mistake in retrospect because Labour didn’t put its stamp all over it. This can be powerful if we invest in it. I’ve decided that more change will come through that route rather than a broken Westminster system.”
He clearly has big plans should he get elected mayor, with a raft of transport, health and housing policies lined up. A concessionary travel scheme for 16- to 18-year-olds is part of his pledge to invest in young people.
“The political tactics say you must make promises to older voters at election time and you pay for it by stripping support away from younger people, and I don’t see how you can build a strong a prosperous society on that basis,” he says. “So younger people will be my priority.”
He also aims to merge NHS and social care in the area, something he made Labour policy when he held the shadow brief under Ed Miliband. As Philip Hammond comes under mounting pressure to address the social care crisis across the country, Burnham believes Greater Manchester under his leadership could be a trail-blazer.
“In the ageing society, you cannot continue to separate social care into a silo,” he says. “What you need is an NHS that can see the whole person and deal with all their needs, and I want to pioneer that in Greater Manchester.”
On the day of our interview, The Times reported that the government was considering a levy on a person’s estate as a way of paying for social care. Burnham could afford a wry smile as that was the same policy the Conservatives labelled a ‘death tax’ when he floated it during cross-party talks before the 2010 election.
He says: “My parents are in their 70s. They didn’t pay their taxes for social care because that wasn’t part of the deal. If you had a 10% levy, you protect 90% of what people have worked for. That’s surely better than letting people go into later life with everything on the roulette table.
“I was asked by Andrew Lansley to take part in cross-party talks on developing a white paper and I said I would, and we discussed the options. What have we had since? Seven years of nothing on social care.
“There’s a lot of political cowardice in this place, a fear of putting something big forward. If that was the spirit of the post-war Labour government then there wouldn’t even be an NHS. I feel modern politics has been unequal to the challenges of modern life at times.”
On housing, Burnham plans to get tough on absentee landlords who rake in a fortune in housing benefit without investing in their crumbling properties. He says: “They drag down the community, damage the property value of the people who live around them and consequently you can’t get a grip on improving the neighbourhood.”
Burnham says he would create a voluntary registration scheme in the expectation that responsible landlords would sign up, making it easier to identify the rest. He would also work with councils to compulsorily purchase properties which have fallen into disrepair. “The message is respect our communities or get out of Greater Manchester,” he says.
It is this type of endeavour, Burnham believes, which will help Labour to reconnect with its former voters and begin the long march back to power.
He says: “I feel devolution is the way the Labour party can get closer to the communities that feel left behind by Westminster, and give them proper answers to things like private landlords, technical education, failing transport. And that is the best way to rebuild.
“I would say to colleagues here that everybody needs to invest in this process to reinvigorate the party from the bottom up, and use it to change the way we do things and involve people in politics.”
With the latest opinion polls giving the Conservatives a lead of up to 18 points, many of Burnham’s Westminster colleagues will be casting envious glances as he packs his bags and heads north. It doesn’t sound as though the man himself will be looking back wistfully.
“It takes a lot from you, this world – you give up a lot when you sign up to come here,” he says.
“There are definitely attractions when you’re a bit younger, but when you get to your 40s your kids are at an age where you want to spend more time with them. The more I think about it, the clearer it is in my mind that it’s the right challenge and change for me at the right time.
“I don’t really have great regrets about things I’ve done here. I’ve tried to call things as best I could.
“I know I’ve always tried to put the public interest first, but I feel like this place isn’t going to deliver the kind of things I want to say.”