lost the race for the Labour leadership in 2010 – coming fourth – but won many admirers for his honesty and directness. (In 2015, he ran again, and came second.) Roy McCloughry got the measure of him on 15 March 2011.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You often refer to your background, because you position yourself – I don’t mean this cynically – as a man of the people. Can you tell us a bit about it?
I’ve always felt very conscious of it, throughout my life, partly because if you come from an ordinary, working-class background and end up in the places that I’ve been in – Cambridge [University], Parliament – you sometimes feel: Am I meant to be here? In the leadership contest, I said: ‘I’ve always expected a tap on the shoulder – you know, “Come on, mate, you’re not meant to be here”’ – and it really connected with people. It’s not fashionable for politicians to admit to moments of self-doubt, is it, but a lot of people told me, ‘I really understand that, and I really feel that that’s me as well.’
Part of my analysis of where Labour lost its bearings during its time in office is that it kind of lost the sense that it belonged to people like me. The New Labour project was about positioning Labour next to people who have great wealth and influence and power; and that said to the ordinary party member, and to the public: ‘Who are these people now? What are they about?’ And that’s what I think Labour needs to rediscover.
What sort of values were instilled in you at home?
I owe absolutely everything to my mum and dad. The upbringing they gave me and my two brothers was just – you know, it all comes from there… We are still a very close-knit family.
What were the values? Well, they were a synthesis, if you like, of Christian, Catholic values and a very Labour-leaning outlook (although my mum and dad were not activists): just a sense of solidarity, responsibility to others… My mum and dad were very down-to-earth, I think – never pushy, but always quietly telling us: ‘You should aim high.’ And it’s a brilliant thing, that I’ve been taught to expect big achievements – but, you know, it was never about [self-interest] but more ‘How do we do our bit in the wider community?’
Your parents had humble backgrounds themselves – I think your father was a telephone engineer, your mother was a receptionist – but they were adamant that you should all go to university.
Oh yes, absolutely. My dad was somebody who could have achieved a great deal in education, but his mum and dad split up when he was eight or nine and he went to a secondary modern [school] as a result. He said to us that he felt he could have done better but, because of the turbulence in his life at the time, he had no chance. (I think maybe part of my dislike of selective education comes from that.) In fact, he ended up achieving a lot but he always had the sense that his life had been kind of diverted and he really didn’t want it to happen to us.
I think my mum very much felt the same. I tried to talk them out of persuading me to go to Cambridge, but eventually I gave in.
You have said you were ‘dumbstruck’ by the arrogance you encountered both at Cambridge and subsequently in Westminster. Is that something you are still sensitive to?
It took me a long time before I said I wanted to be an MP. In the culture I come from, if somebody says they want to do something, everyone says, ‘What? You?’
That goes to the heart of some of my strongest feelings. I don’t think arrogance is ever necessary, personally. When you’re standing to be leader of the party, there’s a certain lobby who say, ‘You need to look, you know… You need to be a bit…’ I’ve never seen things that way.
I dislike arrogance wherever I see it, and what I find is that people almost use it as a marker, don’t they? They use overbearing self-confidence to lever themselves up over other people and put other people off. I know it’s all part of the social game, but it’s, you know… And you see it around a lot. And politics for me isn’t about arrogance – it can’t be. It’s got to be about listening to people and connecting with them. Too many politicians keep a distance from people and I don’t think that’s good.
When I first got to Cambridge and I saw people who had that overbearing self-confidence, at first I was like, ‘Wow! I could never be like them, they’re so superior to me!’ In fact, what you come to realise is that they’re actually quite dysfunctional socially and everyone else is thinking, like you, ‘Who is this bloke?’
There’s a crucial difference between arrogance and a proper confidence, isn’t there?
Yeah. I mean, Parliament has been almost like an argument with myself. It took me a long time before I said I wanted to be an MP, you know, because the culture that I come from is, if somebody says they want to do something, everyone says, ‘What? You?’ It’s a take-the-mick culture, isn’t it? And it has a horribly corrosive effect. Often, I’ve almost been talked out of doing something, or talked myself out of it – and I think so many people just can’t… We waste so much talent because people are not taught to expect to achieve big things.
You joined the Labour Party as soon as you’d turned 15, after being ‘radicalised’, you say, by the Miners’ Strike…
It was an incredibly intense time. I can remember having really strong feelings of anger, and a burning sense of injustice. My school bus used to go past Parkside Colliery and we used to see the miners – and lads I was at school with’s dads were out on strike – and I remember speaking to my mum and dad about it every night – you know, what’s going on? So, yeah, it was a real political awakening, actually.
And also I related it to faith. I was an altar boy and I used to sit there in church every Sunday morning and – and some people might consider this controversial, but I don’t – what I heard I just equated with the values of the Labour Party. I made a very direct link between the two, and still do.
You’ve spoken about how traumatic it was for your grandmother to have to sell her house to raise the fees for her care home. Do experiences like that still inform – even inspire – your politics today?
Yeah. I’ve found that when you’re really speaking with a passion, people hear you. I think people are right when they say that politics has become too anodyne at times and too scripted and all that. You know, all of us kind of think, ‘Oh, I have to say the right thing and I have to be word-perfect’ – but sometimes politicians don’t realise that they’re not appearing authentic.
Going through the leadership process really changed the way I thought about myself as a politician. Actually, I came to the view that I only really want to do things now that I’m truly passionate about, that are kind of hard-wired inside, so that when I speak about them I’m doing it with a bit of oomph. And if I do that, even if I don’t win the argument, I hope people will say, ‘Well, at least he believes what he’s saying.’
With regard to my grandmother, yeah, she wanted to pass on her money to me and my brother as we were going to university and in the end when it couldn’t happen it was just soul-destroying for her. And it was an incredibly dehumanising thing watching her sink into the care system, and as Health Secretary [in 2009–10] I decided I would try to make a difference on that issue – and to a degree I did, though not enough.
I’ve always felt that Conservatism appeals to selfishness and self-interest, but that the common interest is best expressed by the Labour Party. I do feel that ours is the just and right cause
Do anger and a burning sense of injustice still inform your politics, or do you now see the other side as decent people who just have different priorities from you?
It’s a mixture, probably. I do sometimes look at them and think, ‘You are a danger to my constituents,’ and that brings out very strong feelings. I’ve always felt that Conservatism appeals to selfishness and self-interest, but that the common interest is best expressed by the Labour Party. So, I do feel that ours is the just and right cause if you’re looking out for the interests of everybody rather than just some people. I often can get quite angry at the Despatch Box, because I do feel that – particularly in Opposition – I really am speaking for people at home, and I really want to be their voice.
I read that you lost your temper in the House [in February 2010] over your proposal for a national care service…
I did, actually, with [Andrew] Lansley, I have to be honest. I’d taken him on trust, because he’d asked me for talks [seeking a cross-party consensus on the issue] and when I heard that they’d done this poster [saying ‘RIP Off … Don’t vote for Labour’s new death tax’], it was like a kind of red-mist moment on the football field. People say, ‘All’s fair in the rough and tumble of politics,’ but I felt that was just beneath contempt, and I told him so in the lobby in front of quite a few people.
Do you still think of yourself as a radical?
Yeah, maybe. I mean, I have really strong feelings about life chances and how the country is still very uneven. It depends on who you are and where you were born, you know, what school you went to – I really do feel strongly about that. Your life is almost preset for you, unless you are exceptionally lucky and break out of it.
I think that my proposal for a national care service was truly radical. I believe we should pay for the care of older people collectively, in the same way we pay for the NHS. We recognise that Alzheimer’s or any of these things can happen to any of us, and therefore we can’t let everybody individually be responsible for the cost of those conditions.
Some people might detect a degree of hypocrisy in your regret that your grandmother couldn’t give you and your brother a leg-up, when you object to other people buying their sons an education at Eton or an internship in a hedge fund.
I think it is absolutely natural to want to pass on what you’ve worked for throughout your life and I don’t have any problem with that. My argument would be that to buy the education at Eton or the internship you’ve got to have huge amounts of money, and those lower down just don’t get anywhere near to that.
I called my manifesto for the Labour leadership – very deliberately – ‘Aspirational Socialism’. You give everybody the chance to be the best that they can be, but to achieve that, you have to build collective systems of support to kind of even up the playing field, to enable those with least to get on. If you don’t, they simply won’t make it and life will be dominated by the old elites that have always dominated.
Is there a difference between saying, ‘We should all be equal, we won’t settle for anything less’ – which can end up distorting society, as the communists found – and saying, ‘We want to reduce inequality as far as possible’?
No, I don’t think so. It’s fundamental that no one person is superior to any other, and I’m saying that that gives everyone a right to equal treatment, and equal opportunities, from public and other bodies, you know? It’s not about preordaining the outcome – different people will reach different levels in their life – but it is absolutely saying they should have the same chance.
Why did you decide to run for the leadership of your party? Did you really believe you could win it?
I hope this doesn’t sound too self-congratulatory, but I’m stronger than I thought I was. There were moments when I thought, ‘My God, I’m not sure I can summon the strength to do this’ – and I did
Wind the clock back to last year when we were in the last two months of the Labour government and it felt like we might not be coming back. I had tremendous affection for Gordon [Brown] – on the personal level he was wonderful to me – and I was very loyal to him; but I obviously was beginning to think about ‘What if?’ I had to be ready if there was a change.
I weighed up the options and I was pretty sure that David Miliband and Ed Balls would stand, but I wasn’t at all sure that Ed Miliband would, because I wasn’t sure whether the two brothers would go head-to-head. So, my judgement was: David is there, Ed Balls is there –
And you could go up through the middle?
Yeah, as being neither completely Blairite or Brownite – and actually saying that we need to move beyond that kind of axis. I felt I would have a pretty strong case. Odds against, absolutely – I wasn’t deluding myself – really, really tough; but I kind of felt something could happen here.
So, I made the early soundings and got quite a bit of encouragement from people I knew – and then Ed Miliband rang me and said: ‘I’m going to stand. What do you think?’ I just knew at that point that my ground was gone, really; the place from which I would have hoped to mount a really strong push had kind of been crowded out. But I’d already gone so far, and I also felt I had something distinctive to say, something different.
What did you learn about yourself? A lot, I imagine.
Yeah. Oh, you have to dig very… It’s a tough and unforgiving thing once you are out there.
I hope this doesn’t sound too self-congratulatory, but I found that I’m stronger than I thought I was, actually. There were moments when I thought, ‘My God, I’m not sure I can summon the strength to do this’ – and I did. And when I look back at the main media performances and the main hustings, I’m really proud of how I did. You know, I felt I came off pretty well in not all of them but a good number of them. We all had to present to the Newsnight focus group – the only time we actually stood before the public and got them to vote – and I surprised people and won that one. So, there were moments like that that I cherish.
What was great, actually, was to be only speaking for yourself and nobody else. It’s a wonderful thing.
Does that mean that you find the corporate nature of being in a Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet uncongenial?
No, I am by instinct a team player – I’m not a maverick. So, when there is a team and there is a kind of collective position, I’ll play, I’ll do it. I always did it as a minister, always will now.
You know, I’ve played football all my life and I think it is instructive for politics, really – I think more politicians should be forced to play it! You’re in the dressing-room at half time and you bollock somebody for not getting back [to defend], not doing this, not doing that – but then, when you go back out, you’re like that. I got so frustrated in the last parliament with people just yapping off at the cameras – you know, it’s self-indulgent, and who needs somebody like that, in a football team or a political party?
You’ve said you are deeply tribal, but you also talk about principle. Are those things compatible? Tribalism often comes across as ‘my party right or wrong’.
There is a tension between the two. Politics is about the team – it’s got to be, otherwise it won’t work. If you don’t stick together, even when you have a few doubts yourself, you’re scuppered. In the end, it’s the togetherness of politics that delivers the high moral principle. You can’t have the politics of ideas without the politics of organisation.
You voted for the invasion of Iraq. What repercussions did that have for you?
Yeah, well, it was just agonising, really – everyone was going through personal agonies about it. I’ve gone over it many times ever since.
Ann Clwyd1The Labour MP who was then Tony Blair’s special envoy on human rights in Iraq brought the deputy leader of the Iraqi Kurds, Barham Saleh, here and he pleaded with us to escalate the conflict because, he said, his people would never be able to escape Saddam’s grip. I asked him directly, ‘Does he have [illegal] weapons? Are you sure?’ and his answer – which I still find incredibly convincing – was this: We’re almost sure, but we don’t know – and it’s that uncertainty that is his power, basically, because people can’t take him on for fear of what he might do. So, he said, you can’t back down any more: you’ll have to deal with him.
So, we all took our positions and I know why I took mine, and I don’t want to back off from saying why.
In some ways you seem to be quite out of sympathy with the spirit of the age. For example, you’ve said that every child has a right to a father figure. Is it really a matter of rights for you?
Yeah, I do see it that way. I know there’s part of me that is a bit old-fashioned, that doesn’t kind of fit sometimes with the – I won’t go on about the London set, I get into enough trouble…
It was when I was at the Department of Health that this issue came up around IVF. I felt that it was a human right that everybody should be able to say they’ve got a dad, even if it isn’t their physical father, and should be able to call on that person if they need to. To me, it doesn’t challenge anybody else’s rights to say that.
You’ve also spoken out strongly in favour of marriage.
I mean, I’m not neutral about marriage, not because it is good necessarily for the two people who are married (who are adults who can make their own choices) but because I am clear it is better for children if there is – not necessarily marriage, just a true, loving, stable relationship in the heart of a family home. That’s not to be judgemental about other people whose family circumstances are not like that; it’s just to say that if it can be like that for as many children as possible, then that seems to me to be what we should aspire to.
This is also, for me, an equality issue – that as best you can you give everyone the same start in life.
You were also quick to say you believe that marriage should be an option available to gay couples and not just civil partnership – which is an obvious break with your Catholic background. When you make that kind of break, on what basis do you do so?
Just true equality. You know, when I was listening to the priest when I was growing up, I felt that what I was hearing was a message of the innate equality of every single human being, whatever their circumstances – you know, whatever they’ve done, you should forgive them and you should respect their humanity. And I still believe absolutely that whatever choices people make in life, that’s who they are, it’s what they are.
I mean, that’s where I disagree with the Catholic Church over abortion, because who knows what desperate straits some people find themselves in for maybe a mistake – or maybe not a mistake, who knows? I just think we’ve got to have a more forgiving approach – and I feel the church has got less and less forgiving and its rhetoric more hard-line.
Was the Catholicism you grew up in very different?
I remember it as a warm and friendly kind of thing, but I feel it’s become more austere and judgemental.
I can’t get my head around why anybody wouldn’t believe in the utter equality of every human being, but they don’t seem to at times. Surely, it’s just immutable? Whatever people have done, whatever disabilities they may have, whatever their gender, whatever their sexuality, surely the church must believe that they are all God’s creatures? And that equality must extend to the opportunities they have in terms of marriage, financial security and all the other things. It seems they haven’t been able to accept that the world has moved on.
In fact, I’ve been much more at odds with them as an MP than in step with them. What I’ve found is that whenever Parliament debates on a moral issue, you always feel that it’s complex but the church seems to come along with a black-and-white ‘You’re with us or agin us,’ you know? And they alienate somebody like me, who could and should be a kind of ambassador for them, really. And what I detect at the moment – I don’t know whether the Pope has actually said this, but the mood is for a smaller, purer church. I mean, I just think that is a terrifying vision of the future if that is the way they are going. I really hope it isn’t. I really, really hope it isn’t.
The church is a flawed institution, but it’s got many strong points and there are many things I feel a deep attachment to and have always been grateful for
You still go to Mass occasionally, don’t you, despite your differences with the church?
Well, it’s like a political party, isn’t it? You know, at one point one strain of thinking is in the ascendancy and then another is. And what you don’t want is for those people who see things slightly differently to all walk away, because if they do, one side will have won and you will have a smaller, purer church.
I still think the values, the togetherness – you know, the experience of going to church – are really important. It’s a flawed institution, but it’s got many strong points and there are many things I feel a deep attachment to and have always been grateful for.
But it is the values and the community of Catholicism that appeal to you, rather than the idea of a man on his knees before God?
I think so, yeah, if I’m being absolutely honest with you. My attachment is not to the heavy end of the thing.
In the leadership contest, Krishnan Guru-Murthy asked us, ‘Yes or no, do you believe in God?’ and I said, ‘Don’t know.’ A lot of people laughed at that and called it a bit of a politician’s answer, but it was actually the truth. (I probably would rather have not been asked the question, but he put me on the spot.)
I mean, just like school is more than results, going to church is more than, you know, clearing your copybook with, you know, whoever. I’ve always seen it as much more a social act that gives structure and stability to life in the community than an act of deep faith or commitment. It can be both, obviously, but…
You know, I believe in the Labour Party and that will never change; but religion has come and gone in my life much more. When my kids were born, I immediately felt drawn back to the church, in that I kind of felt I had an obligation to allow them to experience that stability and those values and to make their own judgement. I feel that you’re choosing for them if you don’t expose them to these things.
If you could mobilise all our readers on an issue you’re passionate about, what would it be?
I think it’s how we care for old people, because we haven’t yet as a society got the right structures and systems in place to give everybody a truly happy, secure later life. The ageing society is going to be a huge pressure, and to think that people will commonly be living to 100 but their last 25 years, say, will be pretty fearful and unenjoyable is quite a bleak prospect – and as things stand, as I see it, that’s what we’re looking at.
And so I come back to my proposal for a national care service. If I could mobilise civic society behind that – well, I did try, actually, and we really did get somewhere – the voluntary sector overwhelmingly endorsed the collective, comprehensive approach, and I’m pretty sure we had faith groups on board. And, yep, then the [general] election happened, and the rest is history.
That is, I think, going to be a defining mission, and I’ve not given up on it yet.
This edit was originally published in the June 2011 issue of Third Way.
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|1.||⇑||The Labour MP who was then Tony Blair’s special envoy on human rights in Iraq|
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Andy Burnham was born in 1970 in Aintree and educated at St Aelred’s Roman Catholic High School (now St Aelred’s Catholic Technology College) in Newton-le-Willows. He read English at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, graduating in 1991.
After three years ‘in journalism’, as an unpaid intern at the Middleton Guardian and an editorial assistant at Baltic Publishing, he landed a job as a researcher for Tessa Jowell MP. After the 1997 general election, he worked briefly as a parliamentary officer for the NHS Confederation before taking up a post as an administrator with the Football Task Force.
In 1998, he became a special adviser to Chris Smith, then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
In 2001, he contested the safe Labour seat of Leigh (the constituency he grew up next to), winning a majority of 16,362. He has represented it ever since.
He sat on the Commons select committee for health from 2001 to 2003. He then became parliamentary private secretary to David Blunkett (then the Home Secretary) and then, after Blunkett resigned in 2004, to Ruth Kelly, then Secretary of State for Education.
The following year, he was appointed parliamentary under-secretary of state with responsibility for implementing the Identity Cards Act 2006.
A year later, he was promoted to minister of state at the Department of Health.
In 2007, Gordon Brown brought him into his first cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and he became a Privy Counsellor. He was soon promoted to secretary of state, with the brief for culture, media and sport from 2008 and then, from 2009, for health.
After Labour lost power in 2010, he shadowed the new Secretary of State for Health until Ed Miliband gave him the portfolio for education and also made him the party’s election co-ordinator.
He stood as a candidate for the Labour leadership in 2010 but, with 10.4 per cent of the votes, was eliminated in the second round.
He has been married since 2000, having first met his future wife at university, and has a son and two daughters.
Up-to-date as at 1 April 2011