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Andy Burnham: the 'ordinary' person's candidate

By Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Penny Ayres

Updated on 06 August 2010

In the second Labour leadership profile, Andy Burnham tells Krishnan Guru-Murthy that the Labour party should be "for a fairer spread of health, wealth and life chances".

Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham (credit: Getty images)

Andy Burnham is getting a long way on being a nice guy, writes Krishnan Guru-Murthy. He admits himself that he is an outsider but says he is comfortable about being in third place behind David and Ed Miliband, not necessarily in that order.

The Burnham campaign is however, much smaller scale with much less money behind it and a smaller organisation.

However, Andy Burnham is pitching himself as the man who best understands ordinary people. He is making much of his working class roots in the North West, although he denies that that's a dig at the Primrose Hill Milibands, or the public school educated Ed Balls.

But in truth Andy Burnham isn't that different. As an adult he studied at Cambridge and, after a very brief stint as a journalist, has spent his entire adult working life in Westminster politics.

So how different is he really, I wondered, and what is his pitch really about?

The Labour party is "for a fairer spread of health, wealth and life chances," Burnham says.

"What brought me into politics was to challenge a world where the postcode of the bed you're born in determines pretty much where you end up in life and I think sadly that's still as true today.

Vital statistics: Andy Burnham
Constituency: Leigh (12,011 majority)
First elected: June 2001
Current role: Shadow Health Secretary
Nominations: 33 MPs, 44 constituency Labour parties, one MEPs, no trade unions, one socialist society
Donations: £22,400 in July 2010, none in June 2010 according to figures declared to the Electoral Commission
Who Knows Who: Andy Burnham's map

"We've done good things as the Labour party to improve and give people more life chances, and for instance getting more young people to university is something that will in time make this a much fairer country and a less unequal country.

"But I'm very, very struck that it's still much harder to get on in the world if you're an ordinary kid without connections.

"I think it's even harder today than it was when I graduated."

'Life chances'
With a slight dig at the current government, he goes on to say: "People talk the talk about aspiration, but you've really got to mean it. So that's why, for instance, I'm saying we should end this culture of unpaid internships. It began in the media, but it now seems to be pretty widespread practice.

"Now, that for me thrown social mobility into reverse because it's a very small group of people who can afford to work for free in London. And it basically makes it harder, it stacks the odds against those who have least, basically."

He also points to Vince Cable's talk of degrees where "you pop down to your local FE college and you do it via a computer" as a backward step because "essentially you have a second class degree for those who are from less well off backgrounds" who cannot afford university. "That depresses me profoundly," he says.

So what is his vision for the Labour party, now they are in opposition? "Job number one is to set out a clear and principled alternative to the course upon which the coalition have placed us.

"Labour must, at the time of the spending review if not before, set out a moral alternative to cuts on the scale that we are about to see. I think we're going to see such damage to public services that in some cases it could be irreparable.

Ten quick questions:
Where is your favourite holiday destination? Spain, probably Granada I would say.
What was your favourite subject at school? Spanish
What's your favourite drink? Beer - I used to be a bitter man, but I've mellowed. I'm more a lager drinker these days which is a surprise to my dad.
What is your biggest fault? Timekeeping.
Who is your favourite member of the current coalition cabinet? Pass
If you hadn't been a politician, what would you have been? Journalist
Who is the advisor you most listen to in life? My mum and my younger brother - on politics and on absolutely everything. Rocks of wisdom and sense.
If you could chose any talent you currently don't have, what it be? Opening batsman. I always used to admire someone who could open the batting and stick in there.
If Britain adopts AV, which party will get your second preference vote? I would only put one (adding that he wouldn't use his second preference in his constituency)
Do you believe in God? Don't know

He gives the example of social care: "Services are already pretty stretched around the country. To put 40 per cent cuts on care services at a time when the demographic pressure increases year on year - I don't know what service you'd have left. You would have practically nothing beyond an emergency service for those with critical needs.

"This is the alternative Labour's got to set out and we do have to make an argument that says tax should play a bigger part of closing the deficit.

"It's got to be fair and it's got to be seen to be proportionate, but nevertheless an alternative to what we're being told is now unavoidable."

'The alternative'
He says he would have kept the full national insurance increase: "I think that was the right thing to do. There is clearly scope for a more ambitious financial transactions tax on the banks - I think the coalition's proposal is extremely modest. So there are things that can be done to reduce the spending cuts.

And he adds that Labour have to take "head on" the argument that they "left a huge mess". "We both need to defend what we did, which I believe we can, and we then must also set out an alternative course for where we find ourselves," he says.

"As chief secretary to the treasury, I can remember very well the last spending review and Gordon, very wisely in my view, decided at that time that he would grow public spending below overall growth in the economy. And I can remember the difficult discussions with cabinet colleagues at that time because everybody said 'well why are we doing this'. With hindsight it obviously was a very wise decision indeed.

"The coalition have gone for 80/20 in terms of spending cuts to tax increases. We should, in my view, be looking for something much more like 60/40. And it would be 60/40 of a less speedy reduction.

"I've also made the quite difficult suggestion for the shadow health secretary to make that it is not sustainable to give the National Health Service real-terms increases in this period as the coalition propose. I believe the right thing to do is, as Labour proposed in the election, to give inflation and then have a more balanced approach to public spending so that we don't have huge cuts for councils, police and schools. But that's where we're currently heading at the moment."

More on the Labour leadership from Channel 4 News:
Labour leadership: the contenders
- David Miliband: frontrunner and underdog
- Diane Abbott: more than a token candidate
- Ed Miliband: the alternative brother
- Miliband brothers' leadership battle divides Labour
- Labour leadership: the 'squabble' for power

For Burnham, Labour's problem at the last election was that "we lost that sense that we were on the side of people working hard."

"There was a sense that we were, particularly post recession, that we were perhaps on the side of big business, not on the side of ordinary people."

He says that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling did take the right steps in tackling the recession, but says: "I was struck at that time how we struggled to communicate that, and the public thought we were helping bankers and the banking industry, not ordinary people."

'Ordinary people'
He cites the example of agency workers: "I think looking back it did appear that we were listening too much to the CBI and not coming up with a solution that was fair to all."

Burnham, who first started attending Labour meetings at the age of 14, says that it is important to engage with "ordinary people".

"Cameron didn't win his outright majority because people couldn't identify with him. They couldn't believe that he knew what their lives were like.

"It does matter, the extent to which people do have their feet on the ground."

He points to his own background, starting off in journalism and working in publishing "admittedly only for three years, but nevertheless".

"My parents didn't go to university, and they weren't party activists. So I didn't come from a background where this life that I'm leading now was expected. My route in has been different, and obviously that gives you a different perspective on life.

"I have been in Westminster for many years and that's absolutely right, and I'm not claiming otherwise. But by my background and upbringing I think I do have a slightly different perspective on things.

"It is also quite different representing my home seat in parliament because the people I grew up with - I'm now representing them. They do a good job of keeping your feet on the ground I can assure you."

Burnham knows he is the underdog in this leadership race.

"I've always recognised that I've got further to go, that I came into the race perhaps the least well known of the five," he says. "But the long campaign is working to my advantage. I would say I'm in a pretty solid third position at the moment if you use constituency Labour party nominations, which is probably the best indicator of support in the party.

"So yes, underdog and there are obviously two clear frontrunners, but there is a long way to go still."

Your questions from Twitter:
What is your commitment to equality of income as a candidate for Labour leader?
We do have to move away from the Mandelsonian doctrine of being intensely relaxed about the gap. I don't believe it is possible for Labour ever to be intensely relaxed about the gap. I believe we do have to have a view about inequalities in society and it seems to me that we need to have a clearer set of principles about fairness in pay.

It seems to me to be a very big difference if somebody who's putting up their own money and taking a big risk and creating wealth and jobs for the economy - well that's fair enough, that's the old British 'good luck to them' argument. It's quite another when a remuneration committee staffed by the people at the top of the company are ever increasingly paying themselves huge sums of money that is not commensurate to their contribution to the company or to society.

So I think we really need to take this issue apart as a party. And actually I think this is an area where we were looking like we were dazzled by serious wealth and this is really part of Labour's learning and Labour's way back.

Who is getting your second preference vote?
Only talking about myself at the moment. There are four other excellent candidates, but I'm only focusing on my own game at the moment.

What do you say to people who say you're the David Davies of this Labour leadership campaign?
Yeah, 'not so flattering'. People just need to remember it's very different. I wasn't in the same position as David Davies was I? He was absolutely the frontrunner, wasn't he. He was the nailed on tough man who was going to be the next leader. So I would say, actually I'm the David Cameron.

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