Andy Burnham: “I want to make change happen that I think is right”
Two hundred miles from Westminster, Labour politician Andy Burnham has been recast as Manchester’s firebrand mayor: a “king of the north”, who refuses to kneel before the nation’s southern overlords. But does his ambition extend beyond the ring road?
Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Order your copy here.
Andy Burnham strides into the Banqueting Suite of Leigh Sports Village, a £50 million multi-use development in Leigh, 15 miles west of central Manchester. He’s here, on a grey, drizzly Friday in June, for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority meeting: a monthly gathering of the region’s leaders for which he, as Mayor of Greater Manchester, is the chair.
His white shirt, tucked hastily into a pair of grey, skinny jeans, is open at the collar, and his hair, parted on the left, curls slightly into a bend at the forehead. In black Clarks Wallabees, and at a lithe 51, he appears, it must be said, less like a mayor and more like a well-aged member of a Britpop band (one Top of the Pops appearance, two Menswear support slots, Number 38 in the singles chart).
As he takes his place behind a desk at the front of the room, facing the 25 or so elected officials in front of him, he pulls on a black suit jacket and swiftly attaches a tie.“My mum would be proud,” he jokes, half-Windsor knot successfully deployed.
Burnham is here to discuss all manner of local business, from the introduction of a minimum taxi licensing standard to the implementation of a pothole challenge fund. I’m told he’s rightly proud of the Sports Village venue, an impressive shop- ping development and rugby ground just outside the Lancashire town of which he was Labour MP for 16 years, before his election as Greater Manchester Mayor in 2017 (a victory in which he won majorities in all 10 of the region’s boroughs – not bad for a politician born on Merseyside). But beyond its walls, a political storm is brewing.
Earlier in the week, Burnham had found himself embroiled in a bitter war of words with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon over what he called a “totally disproportionate” travel ban between Manchester and Scotland.
In an open letter posted to Twitter, Burnham railed against the way in which restrictions had been extended from Blackburn and Bolton, which he argued had a lower Covid case rate to that of Dundee, to cover Manchester and Salford, too.
“It was disappointing that neither you nor your officials thought it was appropriate to contact us to discuss the proposals or provide advanced warning of the announcement,” he wrote.
In response, Sturgeon accused Burnham of playing politics. “If he wants a grown-up conversation all he has to do is to pick up the phone,” she told the BBC, in the days before we speak. “But if, as I suspect may be the case, this is more about generating a spat with me as part of some positioning in a Labour leadership contest of the future, then I’m not interested.”
Following the meeting, as he paces the rugby stand, flanked by advertisements for Holland’s pies and Marston’s bitter, phone glued to his ear, I get the impression that it is this that is occupying Burnham’s mind more than the minutiae of local politics.
With the Banqueting Suite cleared, barring a small number of crew collecting microphones from tables, he returns to sit eyeball-to-eyeball with longtime aide Kevin Lee, director of his office, and begins drafting a tweet.
“What I’m trying to get at is [that] she’s fudging it,” he stresses to Lee, as the pair thrash out appropriate wording. Burnham talks openly in front of me, tapping a statement into his phone with one hand and tearing into a chicken wrap with the other. “You’ve come on an interesting day,” he notes, dryly.
I ask how he’s able to move from discussing potholes and taxis to, well, arguing with a literal nation.
“That’s the job,” he smiles. “I was an MP for this area – and I was in the Cabinet [as Culture Secretary between 2008 – 2009 and Health Secretary between 2009 – 2010, under Gordon Brown]. On a Friday in Leigh I’d be hearing about squeaky garden gates. I’d be in surgeries and someone would be giving me a really involved story about bins not being collected. And my phone would be red hot with someone saying: ‘Call the Prime Minister!’
“What’s the phrase – cognitive dissonance?” he continues, before his ability to compartmentalise is tested by a member of the sound crew, keen to discuss all things Bolton Wanderers with the mayor.
“You learn to absorb it, I guess.”
On 20th October 2020, Andy Burnham was addressing press outside the Bridgewater Hall, in the city centre, when he received a message that would, arguably, change the course of his career.
Even now it’s an extraordinary watch. In front of rolling television cameras, Burnham is shown an email, by Lee, which confirms the government’s decision to impose a Tier 3 restriction on Greater Manchester (the strictest such measure at the time).
What’s more, rather than the £65 million requested by Burnham as “the bare minimum to prevent poverty, to prevent hardship, to prevent homelessness” (already downgraded from an initial costing of £90 million), he’s told the region would be receiving just £22 million in support.
As boos ring out, and someone shouts “disgrace”, Burnham grimaces, exhales deeply and turns to the microphone. “It’s brutal,” he says, his voice rising. “This is no way to run the country in a national crisis. It isn’t. This is not right.”
Alongside Burnham that day was Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council since 1996 and one of the key architects of the city’s regeneration following the partial destruction of its city centre by an IRA bomb the same year.
“We were pretty angry,” Leese tells me over the phone. “How we see local government in Manchester is that it’s our responsibility to take messages from the people to the government – not the other way round. Standing up for Manchester is an absolute fundamental. And Andy, myself and all the other leaders were determined we were going to stand up.”
In the days that followed, Burnham’s face was splashed across several of the country’s national newspapers. For many, the support package offered, and the manner in which it was announced, was indicative of an increasing north-south divide – one made clearer when the remainder of England entered lockdown and an extended furlough scheme, refused for cities in the north just two weeks earlier, was deemed suddenly viable by Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Burnham became the poster boy for English devolution and was dubbed “King of the North” by several media outfits, a reference to Games of Thrones’ Robb Stark and his refusal to kneel before a southern ruler. Round these parts, where he was elected to a second term by an increased 67 per cent of the vote in May, it’s a name that appears to have stuck.
Now, eight months on from the incident, as we sit this evening in Gorilla, a city-centre bar under a set of railway arches near Oxford Road station, we have our interview interrupted by a pair of young women keen to have their photo taken with the king.
“We’ve been here for about an hour waiting for our opportunity!”
“I was just, like, ‘summon the courage!’ I’ll bloody ask him!”
Burnham obliges and they gather together, handing a phone to Kevin, our photographer, who happens to be Kevin Cummins, the photographer, better known as the Manc behind every iconic photograph of Joy Division, The Smiths, Stone Roses, Oasis – and now the most high-pressure phone snap of his career. “He’s more well known than me,” Burnham tells them.
“Are you? It better be a good picture then!”
Photo taken, the pair collapse into excited chatter.
“Do you know what you do? You stand up for the opinion of the people.”
“Yeah, for us young ’uns you’re the politician that everyone went with! Do you think you’ll run for Labour leader?”
“You’re stuck with me as mayor,” Burnham says.
“You’re stuck with me as mayor, I’m afraid,” he continues.
“Are you staying out this evening or are you just having a quiet few?”
“Why don’t you come out with us?”
Invitation politely declined, Burnham returns to his seat in a booth by the window.
The question of whether he’ll run for Labour leader is one that has followed the politician since that moment outside the Bridgewater Hall.
At the time of our meeting, the Labour Party was a week away from a must-win by-election in Batley and Spen (one that they eventually did win by just 323 votes). The previous month, its leader, Keir Starmer, was forced to hand his deputy, Angela Rayner, a major promotion following a botched reshuffle that was itself triggered by disappointing local election results.
For many, Burnham (northern, emotional, decent coats) offered the kind of impassioned politics that Starmer (bright, principled but ultimately tepid) did not. The cold reality, however, is that Burnham has been rejected as leader by the Labour Party not once, but twice before: first in 2010, when he stood against, and was beaten by, Ed Miliband; and second, in 2015, when he finished a remote second to an insurgent Jeremy Corbyn.
What feels different now, perhaps, is that Burnham, some 200 miles away from the Westminster bubble, has been able to put clear distance between himself and the internal battles of the party. Was it a deliberate separation?
“I’m not saying it’s not true,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “But there’s more motor in my own personal happiness and my own sense of what I needed to do. It wasn’t a convenient way of avoiding Labour. It wasn’t. It’s happened that it has been a convenient way of not embroiling myself in all that. But that is only because I didn’t want to be embroiled in all of that.
“This job has been actually about reconnecting myself with what I am doing and what I can do to make a difference. And it just so happens that we took a side-step out of… out of Labour bollocks, basically.”
Part of what makes the Burnham resurgence of the last year all the more interesting is the fact that for many years he was, to put it bluntly, part of said Labour bollocks.
Politically on the soft left of the party, he was seen as a career politician in the New Labour mould. A “Westminster team player” as he puts it to me; one who started his career in government under Tony Blair and ended it under the diametrically opposed Jeremy Corbyn. That surely takes some ambition.
You can feel that ambition in him now, too. It’s there in his headline-grabbing policies: a 2017 promise to wipe out rough sleeping in Manchester by 2020 (target missed) or to bring the region’s buses back under public control (successful and coming into play until 2024). It’s definitely there in his willingness to pick a fight with Sturgeon, buoyed by his standoff with central government last year. As a member of Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet put it to The Guardian at the time: “One of Andy’s gifts is to convince himself that the best thing for him also happens to be the right thing to do.”
He’s been questioned a lot about a return to Westminster, most recently in a New Statesman cover story (response: “I ain’t going back any time soon”). Is there a world in which he could ever see himself not being part of the Labour Party?
“It’s hard to see that,” he says slowly. “I feel like Labour has drifted away from me over the years if I’m honest, in that I don’t think they’ve always treated me very well. That’s a bit of a personal gripe but I don’t think they’ve always properly dealt with me. I can’t imagine that there would be a circumstance where I wouldn’t vote for them. But they do need to change. I’m not going to say they don’t. They do.”
I ask what a changed Labour Party looks like to him. Is it greater devolution to the regions? A handing over of power to the so-called “red wall” of traditional Labour voters, lost to the Tories in the last election?
“Honestly, I think so,” he says, describing devolution as “the ability to have policies that are right for Manchester, rather than policies that are right for London”.
“Devolution creates the opportunity for a different way of connecting with the public and allows you to have a different conversation with them,” he continues. “Because it’s about place, not party, so you’re just talking about what unites us all – which is a love of this place and this city – and about dealing directly with the things that actually matter.”
And as for his own role within that?
“I think Westminster politics is struggling to show how it can be a noble thing. Whereas I think in this role you can show how politics can be more noble again, in that it can listen better and it can make real change happen. I don’t necessarily have things like ‘legacy’. I don’t really think every day about what my legacy’s going to be. But if there was one, I don’t want English devolution to burn brightly and [then] get washed away by an incoming government.
“I want to make change happen that I think is right. I want to give this place a proper, strong voice. And I hope I have,” he concludes. “The one thing I would want everyone to think is that I threw my heart into it. That’s all I would ask.”