Eileen Burnham opens the door with suspicion.
“Is Andy in?” I ask, as if calling her son out to play. Her face softens. It turns out she thought I was a Jehovah’s Witness rather than a Guardian journalist. “He’s not, no, but come in, love. Tea?” I’m ushered into the computer room where Andy Burnham’s dad, Roy, and elder brother, Nick, a headteacher, are huddled around the PC watching the Ashes livestream.
No one seems to think it terribly odd that a journalist has popped in unannounced, though it wasn’t supposed to be a cold call. Earlier in the day Burnham had suggested I meet him at his mum and dad’s immaculate bungalow in Culcheth, near Warrington, three miles from where he lives with his Dutch-born marketeer wife, Marie-France van Heel, and their three children.
He had roped his parents and his brother into appearing in a video for his website, so thought I might as well tag along. Earlier in the morning his daughters Annie, 10, and Rosie, 13, had been filmed gamely larking about while making a cake, while Van Heel made a rare media appearance to talk about their “typical family life”.
When Burnham eventually turns up with the girls in tow, he winds Annie up for crying the previous evening during a particularly tense moment in The Great British Bake Off (let the record state it is an allegation she furiously denies).
The videos, and perhaps my invitation to the bungalow, are all part of Burnham’s plan to convince Labour members that he is the Everyman to lead the party back into power. A dad, a son, a brother, a bloke in the pub before the Everton game, a viewer of Bake Off, husband of a woman who once appeared on Blind Date when they were supposed to be courting (she was paired with the future head of marketing for the Tory party. It wasn’t a successful match.) An ordinary fella – “our Andy”, to his retired telecoms engineer father – who hasn’t lost touch with his northern roots despite spending 21 of his 45 years in the Westminster bubble he now rails so loudly against.
He insists that going to the match and having his main home in his constituency of Leigh, near Wigan, rather than London, keeps him grounded. “I’ve never been part of the Westminster in-crowd. I don’t spend my weekends down there. I don’t relate to it, I don’t like it,” he says in his mum’s sitting room. But many are unconvinced.
“All this Westminster bubble stuff is rather ironic because Andy is very much a creature of Westminster,” says Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, who also gives short shrift to Burnham’s pledge to ensure a range of accents in his shadow cabinet (“It’s a bit simplistic, isn’t it? I want to see people in there on merit, not because of how they talk.”)
At a hustings in Canary Wharf organised by Operation Black Vote and the Patchwork Foundation, Burnham is heckled after answering a question by a young black student about her statistically poor employment prospects by saying he understood her plight because he too could not get a job when he graduated. He ended up doing work experience on the Middleton Guardian newspaper, near Rochdale, then toiled away on a trade magazine about shipping containers before getting a job as Tessa Jowell’s researcher in parliament aged 24.
“I relate very strongly to what you said because I left university in 1991, went from a Merseyside comprehensive to Cambridge. I graduated and thought ‘the doors are going to fly open for me’, and they didn’t and I was unemployed for six months, whereas people I went to university with, whose mums and dads worked in places like this [the offices of KPMG accountants] or were in the media or in law, they just flew into internships,” he says, before being chastised by the chair for equating his own experience as a white middle-class man with a black woman suffering the “race penalty”. Burnham insists on finishing his point about banning unpaid internships, and raises his already booming voice, which often has the timbre and volume of an impatient centre-forward demanding a pass up from defence.
Football is Burnham’s great passion and he has pledged to retain his season ticket at Goodison Park if he becomes prime minister. While zipping his way up the Labour ranks – moving from Jowell’s office to becoming a special adviser to the culture secretary Chris Smith, before winning his hometown seat of Leigh in 2001 and soon serving first in Tony Blair’s cabinet as culture secretary and then under Gordon Brown as chief secretary to the Treasury and health secretary – he has been an aggressive striker in Labour’s Demon Eyes football team, garnering a reputation as a bit of a goalhanger.
During the campaign he has been accused of political opportunism, copying Jeremy Corbyn’s policies when it became clear the bearded Islington refusenik was ahead in the polls. Hours after Corbyn went on Woman’s Hour to launch his women’s manifesto, Burnham, already stung by allegations of sexism, turned up in Leeds with a PowerPoint slide pledging that at least 50% of his multi-accented cabinet would be female. Last week he said he too would like to renationalise the railways.
Most damaging of all was his apparent flip-flop on Tory plans to cut welfare expenditure by £12bn, saying that Labour “simply cannot abstain” in its opposition to the welfare reform bill – immediately after abstaining in a vote on the cuts. At every hustings he is angrily challenged on his abstention, and admits it has dogged him throughout the campaign. “It’s been the defining moment of this campaign so far – and defining for me in an unhelpful way,” he says.
Yet he continues to insist it was the right thing to do in order to maintain party unity, saying he would have had to resign from the shadow cabinet and lead a rebellion had he not toed the party line. “But that’s not me, that’s not my style of politics … you’re no good to anybody if you’re a divided opposition, spiting each other. Labour was like that in the 1980s and look where that got us.
“There’s already an incipient factionalism bubbling away at this party,” he adds. “I’ve never been a maverick when it’s come to party loyalty and there’s no point starting now.”
This is Burnham’s second – and, he insists, final – shot at becoming Labour leader. In 2010 he came fourth, above only Diane Abbott, on a platform of “aspirational socialism”. His 30-page manifesto then was not wildly different from the one he unveiled last week, though he’s dropped the S-word five years on, along with a proposal for a “solidarity wealth tax” where the total value of an individual’s assets, less any debts, would be subject to an annual tax. But now, as then, he promises party renewal, comprehensive education, housebuilding and a revolution in health and social care.
Very few people have a nasty word to say about Burnham, beyond the odd mean remark about him resembling a ventriloquist’s dummy with a Lego man haircut. Even Danczuk – a Liz Kendall supporter who sees Burnham as the Conservatives’ choice for leader because of his baggage as Brown’s chief secretary to the Treasury and his dismissal of a public inquiry into the Mid-Staffordshire hospital scandal – says he is “one of the good guys”.
One-on-one he is great with people, cuddling a baby wearing a “leader of the house” babygrow in York, where he also charms 16-year-old Flora Bowen, who arrived as a Corbynite and left ready to vote Burnham. “I think it’s impressive that he’s dedicated his life to representing the people,” says Bowen. “It was nice to hear his slight northern accent. I like that. You hear him on telly and think ‘oh, he sounds a little bit like me, maybe he will help me’. It’s perhaps a bit superficial but it’s potentially significant.”
I have dealt with Burnham often over the years in his capacity as Leigh’s MP and always found he went beyond the call of duty for his constituents. In 2009, when health secretary, he paid for his own plane ticket to Libya to try to negotiate with Muammar Gaddafi to reunite a six-year-old Wigan girl with her mum after she had been abducted by her Libyan father. Last year he pleaded with Barack Obama on behalf of an American man with a British passport who had wound up lost and lonely in Leigh after being deported to the UK and separated from his wife and daughter.
Most famously, Burnham campaigned for years for a judicial inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans died, and still wears a commemorative red rubber bracelet underneath the cuffs of his Armani suits (half-price in the Boxing Day sale, he told GQ) to support the families. The former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher donated £10,000 to Burnham’s last leadership bid, and this time Neville Southall, the legendary Everton goalkeeper, has chipped in, telling Burnham on Twitter: “You are the best man for the job. Top blue and top guy.”
But being a top guy is not enough to win a Labour party leadership contest, let alone a general election. Many criticise him for pitching from left to right, cosying up to the unions one week and then sucking up to big business another. His changeling tendencies have already lost him the support of Unite, the UK’s biggest trade union, which donated £3,000 to his office only a few months ago. Len McCluskey, Unite’s all-powerful boss, said last year that Burnham was the politician who impressed him most, only to switch his allegiance to Corbyn in recent weeks.
For his first major speech after throwing his hat into the ring in May, Burnham headed to the City and told an audience of accountants at Ernst & Young that Labour had to admit it should not have been running a significant deficit in the years before the crash. In what the Sun described as a “staggering change of tone”, he declared that the entrepreneur would be “as much our hero as the nurse”. Yet days later he was at the Royal Armouries in Leeds delivering a big speech about his vision for a joined-up health and social care policy, saying that the biggest mistake Labour made in 2010 was allowing the Tories to blame Labour for the financial crisis.
Challenged during a Mumsnet chat to “tell the truth about the deficit and national debt”, Burnham said: “What you do not acknowledge is that in our first term in government Labour ran more surpluses than the Tories in 18 years under Thatcher and Major. Second, you will recall that between 1997 and 2007, Labour ran a strong and growing economy, with rising living standards across the country. Thirdly, we did fix the roof while the sun was shining – the roofs of those schools and hospitals where water was pouring in when we came into government in 1997. Given all this, allowing the Tories to hang the millstone of ‘Labour’s mess’ around our neck was a major mistake.”
But talking to a friendly audience in Leeds, Burnham said Ed Miliband’s 2015 manifesto was the best he had ever stood on. He rarely criticises Miliband, perhaps because some his campaign team are Miliband loyalists: his director of communications is Katie Myler, daughter of the former News of the World editor Colin Myler, who masterminded Miliband’s successful leadership bid, while Lucy Powell, Miliband’s chief of staff before becoming MP for Manchester Central, is also on board.
Some of Labour’s other MPs in Greater Manchester have failed to back him. A few are cross at his blanket condemnation of George Osborne’s “northern powerhouse” plans (“It’s just spin, isn’t it?” he declared in Leeds), including a radical proposal to devolve responsibility for health and social care to a local level. Others accuse him of lacking a grand vision plan to counteract David Cameron and Osborne’s “hard-working families” and “long-term economic plan” rhetoric.
Despite declaring himself the anti-soundbite politician, one of Burnham’s favourite soundbites is about having realised during the general election campaign that “the longer the driveway, the less we had to offer by the time we reached the doorstep”. But it’s hard to see what there is in his manifesto for those who are already doing well.
At campaign events, Burnham gets his audience onside by telling them that what makes them Labour is that “you think of others before you think of yourself”. But while giving his supporters a warm glow, he arguably overestimates the altruism in the average Briton. You could argue, as the New Statesman writer Helen Lewis has, that despite “virtue signalling” by publicly supporting cuddly right-on causes on Facebook etc, the majority of people privately support a crackdown on benefits and will vote for the party that will leave them better off themselves.
Burnham says his manifesto will appeal to the middle classes as well as those on the breadline. He points to his plan to revolutionise the financing of social care so that it is free at the point of delivery (“Everyone needs social care at some point”), the replacement of university tuition fees with a graduate tax and his idea of putting apprenticeships on a level pegging with university courses by introducing a Ucas-style points system. But it lacks the willy-waving optimism of the Conservatives’ long-term economic plan, powered by new roads and rail and overseen by ministers in hard hats.
Could a Burnham-led Labour party win in 2020? Even some of his friends think not. “Some people suggested I shouldn’t run at all. Senior figures in the party, let’s put it that way,” he says. Why? “They said ‘you can’t win in 2020’.”
A poisoned chalice? “Yeah.” He laughs. “Sometimes I do wonder why I am applying for it. But I suppose the reason why I am – and I know it perhaps sounds corny – is that I am genuinely worried about the direction Labour is going in. I think that the party’s future is hanging in the balance now, and I hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant but I think I am the right person for this moment in time.”
Born 7 January 1970 in Aintree, Liverpool.
Education St Aelred’s Roman Catholic high school in Newton-le-Willows, then Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge, where he studied English.
Background Raised in Culcheth, a village near Warrington, by his telephone engineer father and receptionist mother. Burnham’s working class roots are a cornerstone of his image strategy. He joined Labour when he was 14, having been “radicalised” by the miners’ strike.
Jobs/roles Began working for Labour in 1994 as a researcher for Tessa Jowell. In 1998, after jobs with the NHS Confederation and the Football Task Force, he became a special adviser to the secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith.
Entered parliament 2001 as MP for Leigh, Greater Manchester. Raised to government by Gordon Brown as chief secretary to the Treasury. He also worked as culture secretary and health secretary. In opposition he has been the shadow education secretary and the shadow health secretary.
He said “The Labour party is crying out for a bigger vision it can get behind, it can unite around, and that’s what I’m offering.”
They said “A Labour party led by Andy will restore its strength, regain wide support and win.” (Neil Kinnock)
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