Andy Burnham is not without good ideas, some of them even quite radical. But they risk being drowned out by an over-willingness to indulge in the Labour Party’s favourite hobby: raging against the Evil Tories
It’s fair to say that this blog has not been Andy Burnham‘s biggest fan throughout the Labour leadership campaign – “bland non-entity” being my most charitable description thus far of the Shadow Health Secretary and MP for Leigh.
Having attended Burnham’s latest rally in London yesterday, however, I must give credit where credit is due and walk back some (but by no means all) of my criticism. Clearly Andy Burnham does have convictions, though in many cases his policy prescriptions are inevitably contrary to my own. And Burnham spoke well, albeit in that polished and structured way that you only really notice in contrast to the frank, off-the-cuff style of Nigel Farage or Jeremy Corbyn.
Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott gave Burnham a barnstormer of an introduction, reeling off the New Labour: 1997-2010 greatest hits to a warm reception which was most notable because (one heckler aside) the capacity crowd of several hundred seemed willing to give Tony Blair’s Number Two a completely free pass on the Iraq question. And when Burnham came to speak, he did so with the wry humility of someone who was once the frontrunner but now seems doomed to scrap with Yvette Cooper for second place.
Burnham was at his best when trying to look beyond sulking opposition to austerity and focus instead on the bigger, more transformational changes he wants to bring about, like bringing social care under the umbrella of the NHS. When asked what new Labour policies could ever appeal both to Scotland and the south-east of England, Burnham cited the 1945 Labour government which “had policies of scale, of ambition, of hope”.
The same cannot be said for the Labour faithful who stood up to ask Burnham questions, though. By and large, the audience – encompassing a range of ages but overwhelmingly white, especially for London – were eager to lay into the Evil Tories first and foremost, and demanded their full share of anti-Tory red meat from the candidate.
One audience member’s tirade against “our Hitler-style government .. persecuting disabled people” prompted Andy Burnham to match the hyperbole word-for-word, claiming that “Iain Duncan Smith [is] terrorising disabled people with his announcement [about changes to Employment and Support Allowance]”. Because naturally, conservatives live to persecute the poor, the sick and the disabled.
If comparing the Work and Pensions Secretary to a terrorist seems a step too far, most of the anti-Tory rhetoric was simply depressingly juvenile. I counted at least four references to the “Bullingdon Boys” of the Tory Cabinet, one sneering use of George Osborne’s birth name, Gideon, and the almost inevitable mention of Health Secretary “Jeremy… Hunt. Did I say that right?”
Overall, one gets the sense that of all the non-Corbyn candidates, Andy Burnham has the most tangible ideas – meaning policies that would noticeably change the country we live in were they enacted (albeit for the worse, in this blog’s opinion). Burnham’s plan for the “progressive re-nationalisation of the railways” isn’t just tinkering around the edges, it is deliberately altering the relationship between the state and the economy for ideological reasons. “Extending the NHS principle to social care” would double down on Labour’s historic vision of the state being our primary caregiver, from cradle to grave.
If Andy Burnham took the time to develop these ideas further they might come to resemble a coherent philosophy, and not look quite so lacklustre in comparison to Jeremy Corbyn’s unapologetic socialism. But Burnham seems torn between talking about the politics of scale, ambition and hope, and playing to the gallery with zingers about the Tory Scum currently in power.
Allowing his focus to waver from the vision this way – and failing to contradict or disassociate himself from some of the more hateful and hyperbolic anti-Conservative remarks – does not instil much hope that Andy Burnham is the leader to turn Labour from being a party of virtue-signalling piety back into a plausible party of government.
I picked up on this point when I spoke to Andy Burnham at the conclusion of the campaign event. Burnham isn’t stupid. He has a good political radar and surely must know that all of this sanctimonious moralising and hysterical anti-Conservative hysteria currently roiling the Labour Party will do nothing to accomplish the vital task of winning back Tory and UKIP votes in 2020.
I was therefore keen to find out whether Andy Burnham thought that Labour could straddle these competing impulses: the desire to demonise the Tories and reflexively oppose everything that they do, and the need to go before the electorate with a compelling Labour philosophy and message capable of standing up on its own, not just as an angry reaction to David Cameron and the Conservative Party.
What follows is a transcript of my interview with Andy Burnham:
Question: Your speech has obviously gone down well, you had a standing ovation. You talked about the Bullingdon Boys quite a lot, you talked about the Tory cuts, you talked about Iain Duncan Smith “terrorising disabled people” with ESA changes, and that goes down very well in this hall. But what happens when you try and take the message outside of this room, outside Labour supporters? What happens in 2020 when you try and fight the general election when, let’s face it, you’re going to have to win the support of people who voted Tory and might not like to hear that they have been complicit in maybe a genocide of the disabled or the persecution of the sick? How do you take this passion, but do it in a way that doesn’t necessarily alienate the half of the country who might vote for the Conservatives or for UKIP?
Andy Burnham: Well, I trust in the decency of the British people. They don’t want to see disabled people worrying from one day to the next, full of anxiety, and I think they see how the things that they [the Tories] are doing are cruel. Unfair. Because if people can’t work, people support the idea that they have help. If people can work, then people want to see them helped into work, but Duncan Smith goes further than that, and they’re taking support off people, money off people, who have no ability to replace that income. And the stress, the anxiety that causes is just wrong.
So that’s what I’ve said and I will stand as Labour leader for a fair and humane benefits system, but actually also responding to the concerns people have about immigration, about the economy, I’ve said that we should do that. This party shouldn’t just talk to itself – I said that tonight – it should talk for the whole country, and that’s what we’ll do under my leadership.
Question: And on that note, how does your party connect with aspirational Britain? So we get the compassion, that’s very clear, and that comes through loud and clear in your voice and in the supporters, but what about the people who are striving, you know, maybe trying to move up into those top income tax brackets and don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing? How do you win them over to the Labour Party and to your cause?
Andy Burnham: Well that’s a really, really good question. And I’ve said that I want to lead a Labour Party that helps everybody get on in life, not a party that drags people back or speaks to the politics of envy but helps people get on, so helps people get onto the housing ladder with a very ambitious housing policy that stops young people having to find a huge deposit, that really helps them get an affordable home, that removes that millstone of debt off the backs of young people, so gets rid of tuition fees, supports young people who want a technical education. These are the policies that I believe in, and actually, when it comes to older people, have a situation where nobody loses everything they’ve worked for just because they happen to be vulnerable and need care. These are the policies that I’ve got and I believe they can speak to the whole country.
You can decide for yourself whether you think Andy Burnham answered my questions or not. But I came away feeling that the message had not quite penetrated, or been fully understood. Burnham’s answers were still predicated on the idea that there is a savage attack being carried out on the vulnerable by the Tories, and that anyone in their right mind must be able to see this.
This is where Jeremy Corbyn has an edge, for all the criticisms of his supposedly “far left” policies. Listen to Jeremy Corbyn address a crowd and they hang on his every word, even as he describes in quite nerdish and meandering terms his left-wing interpretation of the roots of the 2008 financial crisis.
But crucially, when Corbyn talks about the Conservative government it comes across in a tone which suggests Corbyn thinks that the Tories are acting out of mistaken belief rather than malice. Corbyn will pontificate about how the Tories supposedly blame the crisis on past Labour overspending on schools and hospitals, when in fact it was the Evil Bankers and failed ‘neoliberal’ policies at the root of it all. But he views this dichotomy as a failure of understanding, not of morals.
Corbyn clearly thinks that conservatives are wrong. But Andy Burnham and his supporters give off the very strong impression that they think that conservatives are bad people. The Tories don’t want a small government because they believe it is the best route to a just and prosperous society, this line of thinking goes, but because they hate the poor and the disabled, and want to see them suffer.
Even when I pressed Andy Burnham on this point, asking how Labour could possibly win back the votes of people they are essentially accusing of being accessories to murder, he didn’t seem able to appreciate that someone might care deeply about the plight of society’s most vulnerable people and yet not see Labour as having all the right answers. As far as Burnham is concerned, any person in their right mind must look at the Conservative government and declare them to be “cruel”.
But more concerning to those who care about Labour, even when I provided a golden opportunity to pitch to Britain’s aspirational voters and perhaps talk about rolling back regulation, taxes and the nanny state, Burnham could only talk about what government has to offer the people by way of state handouts and perks. It’s hard to see this message resonating with the millions of aspirational voters who just want to get on, and who don’t look to government as an essential partner in everything that they do.
Don’t misunderstand: there is good stuff in Burnham’s manifesto. The idea of ‘Rent to Own’ mortgages requiring no deposit, for example, shows an attentiveness to the needs of young people that Cameron’s Tories have never shown, to their great shame. Bringing social care under the NHS is also a logical move if – if – we are to persist with government-provided healthcare for the masses. Rolling back the mistaken Tory cuts to justice and legal aid is very honourable, and the commitment to challenge various TTIP provisions shows that maybe there does lurk within Burnham the desire to look out for what he sees as Britain’s interests in the world, even if this (predictably) does not extend to the EU.
So after an interesting evening sitting deep within enemy territory, I will walk back some of my criticisms: Andy Burnham is not a ‘bland non-entity’. I would go as far as to say that he has a small number of good ideas which he is clearly passionate about, some of which put the current Conservative government to shame.
But unfortunately all of this good work is lost in the noise: the roar of Jeremy Corbyn’s unabashed socialism as he storms to victory, thereby potentially creating real choice in British politics for the first time in decades, and the hot air of Labour’s incessant, fatuous, sanctimonious moralising about the Evil Tories.
Labour will not taste power again until they learn to stop hating, and actually seek to win victory for themselves rather than fruitlessly daydreaming about beating the hated Conservatives. And although Burnham is impressive in person, a few good ideas are not enough on their own to merit winning the party leadership.
Therefore, Andy Burnham should serve with diligence in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, and seek to incubate the best of his ideas – as well as taking the Tories to task for their inevitable failings over the next Parliament – from that no doubt eventful position.