In the Labour party’s constant act of self-flagellation, there is one leading dogma: if the party is in opposition, it is because they previously failed to elect its rightful messiah. Throughout the Miliband years there was the constant refrain that the party “elected the wrong brother.” Under Corbyn, an almost weekly rotating cast from John McDonnell to Jess Phillips, from Clive Lewis to Yvette Cooper, was suggested in the media as someone who would be “twenty points ahead” of the government. For Keir Starmer’s stalling leadership, the prince over water comes in the form of the twice denied, never-leader Andy Burnham.
Now hailed as the saviour of the Labour Party in the “red wall”, having traded in his Armani suits for a North Face jacket, Burnham has been in politics for long enough to be many things to many people. A Scouser who finds himself Mayor of Greater Manchester. A loyal party man who is apparently going to come back and lead a coup against Keir Starmer.
His background from the age of 18 to becoming an MP wouldn’t put him out of place with a large proportion of the current PLP. An English degree from Cambridge was followed up by a job as a researcher for Tessa Jowell at the age of 24. After the 1997 election, a string of successful jobs followed; the man who would come to loathe the Westminster bubble was then a well assimilated part of it. Burnham applied for the selection of the parliamentary seat of Leigh, at the edge of Greater Manchester in Wigan, and was subsequently elected with a majority of just over sixteen thousand in 2001.
The future was bright. Burnham, young and likeable, was a party man with obvious talents and an earnest passion that was almost out of fashion in the New Labour era; this was evident in his response to being heckled at an event remembering the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. The campaign became of personal significance to Burnham, who is to this day a high profile advocate of the victims’ families and Justice for the 96 campaign, and perhaps the only Everton fan to be given a standing ovation at Anfield five years after his first speech there.
There was also a certain bonhomie to him, one that he wore more sincerely than many of his fellow graduates of the New Labour finishing school for Special Advisors, with their robotic and hyper ambitious reputation. While Culture Secretary, Burnham also became perhaps the only MP to ever comment on the results of The X Factor, after a constituent of his was eliminated in 2008. Burnham’s most high profile role in government was as Health Secretary in the final year of the New Labour government. He had all the hallmarks of a future star.
Yet the future never really came. In the first of his two opportunities to be Labour leader, Burnham felt like an actor playing a role he was uncomfortable with, an unwavering Blairite who would go on to stare down Ed Miliband as he apologised for taking the UK into the Iraq war in his victory speech. In 2015, a supposed coronation, his collegial spirit was almost self-parodic; he floundered when asked in the then respectable Mumsnet what his favorite biscuit was. He struggled to find his footing in the first BBC debate. By the time he followed the whip to abstain on the Welfare Bill of 2015, the crown had slipped from his hands, finishing in a weak second place.
In defeat, Burnham remained a loyal party man. Under Ed Miliband, he was Shadow Health Secretary, and in 2015, he was the only of Corbyn’s opponents to serve under him, as Shadow Home Secretary. He stayed in post throughout the resignations from the shadow cabinet following the EU referendum until he won the nomination for Mayor of Greater Manchester.
That election was one Burnham comfortably won, with 63.4% of the vote, and carrying all but six wards across Greater Manchester. This was the charming, relatable Burnham capable of showing the sides of him that he had failed to do so in 2015. Where his anti-“Westminster bubble” had seemed before at times resentful, almost hypocritical, (what man that hates Westminster so much seeks to lead its main opposition party?) Burnham had now put his money where his mouth was. Manchester was his passion, and in dedicating himself to it, he had found himself as a politician.
Burnham’s flagship program, the “A Bed Every Night” scheme, aimed at tackling the appalling levels of rough sleeping in Greater Manchester. Burnham donated a portion of his salary every month to the program. He has also begun the process of franchising bus services across Greater Manchester, where the Greater Manchester Combined Authority are responsible for setting routes, frequencies and fares of buses across the region. It’s worth noting that under the current plans franchising would not be fully rolled out by the next election, but it is scheduled to begin from 2023. It’s a bold use of Burnham’s limited powers, and an important part of Burnham’s attempts to throwback to the “Municipal Socialism” of Labour councils such as Sheffield and the Greater London Council in the Thatcher years, and this “Municipal Burnhamism” is a process of essentially using devolved powers in England to roll back the deregulation of the 1980s as a means of addressing regional inequality.
While these ideas aren’t as radical as the green investment bank proposed by Jamie Driscoll in the North of Tyne, they are popular. Other Labour mayors were quick to copy Burnham, most notably Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire, and to a lesser extent, Steve Rotheram in Liverpool. He has not, of course, escaped the contradictions of power. Issues like his struggle with Labour-run Stockport to sign up to the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework meant that he had to replace it with a watered down “Places For Everyone” scheme – but in newspapers, TV interviews and most importantly, locally, there was a sense this was man doing what he was meant to do.
It was Coronavirus that reintroduced Burnham to the public. His most high profile moment in the role of Metro Mayor was during the second half of 2020, as Greater Manchester was put under a “local lockdown” in July, and the issue of support for businesses and workers affected by Greater Manchester moving into a Tier 3 local lockdown set up a confrontation between him and central government. Burnham’s expression of undisguised frustration as he found out about the government’s decisions whilst giving a press conference with Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, captured something of the moment. Here was someone who not only cared, but could show it well, an unwelcome contrast for the prim, politically humdrum Keir Starmer, one that the leader’s internal opponents were quick to jump on.
It was this strength as a defender of local interests that allowed Burnham to have some of his mistakes and ideological choices overlooked. As Mayor he is also the Police and Crime Commissioner covering Greater Manchester Police, and under Burnham’s watch the force has been placed into special measures. A report into GMP found that they had failed to report over 80,000 crimes, and the Chief Constable at the time resigned his post. A further report commissioned by the GMCA found issues with the culture within GMP, and with the IT systems being used. This was one of many problems: The force’s use of stop and search was found to be institutionally racist, and the new, Burnham-appointed, Chief Constable has been criticised for claiming that the public are fed up with “woke” policing and has said he would not take the knee. It seems that the once New Labour man still believes in being tough on crime.
Labour in its current form is often accused of not having a clear vision; Burnham as mayor, this time, has a positive case to offer, with all that implies. Is the proposition attractive? A cynic might see in Burnham’s current moves – a column in the Standard, his glossy profiles in the press commenting on everything, including how he would’ve fared as leader in the 2019 election – as a man on manoeuvres. To return in triumph after being rejected twice for men who were clearly not winners would probably feel like a personal vindication, but it entails leaving home behind.
Second best does not need to be so bad; there are much crueler fates in politics than having the sort of profile and respect that Burnham has earned. The constants of Andy Burnham’s politics have been his conflicting desires to both belong, and to reject the system that have made him who he is. In Manchester, the city that welcomed him, he is Mayor Andy, a role that has given him oxygen, focus and placed in his hands power and the ability, however limited, to do things. Westminster offers him nothing, except the allure of fulfilling old promise. In the meantime, Labour will always resent the one leader they have, and love the one just out of reach.
This article is part of The Social Review’s series on Metro Mayors and Local Government, with a commitment to publish at least one article a month on the subject – but we want as many as possible. If you have an idea for an article, please read our pitching guidelines and send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org