The former health secretary has much in common with all or most of his fellow candidates: until May, a cabinet minister; a former special adviser; Oxbridge-educated; and a white, straight, middle-class man in his 40s. So in a contest where distinctiveness is a strength, he’s obviously been playing up his northern roots, right?
‘Actually my pitch hasn’t been that I’m from the north … People just choose to hook me in that bracket because of my accent,’ says Burnham. ‘Or, they want to say, “Oh, he’s the northern one.” I get pigeon-holed in that way by the national media and I find that frustrating. There’s still a bit of this, “Fancy people in the north thinking they can aspire to high office.”‘
Perhaps he is trying to have his cake and eat it: Burnham wants to stand out but not be pigeon-holed. But the MP for Leigh’s pitch is genuinely more subtle than is often portrayed. His real target is elitism; the fact that most of the political, media and business establishment reside down south is not, of itself, the issue.
‘The theme of my campaign,’ he continues, ‘is that Labour is nothing if it’s not about breaking down elites. One of my criticisms of New Labour is that it spent too much time courting elites. And I would change that.’
Burnham’s analysis is that social mobility is going backwards as it becomes increasingly difficult for people, like him, whose parents do not have connections to make it in the professions.
‘After university I began as an unpaid journalist … I had to give that up because I could not afford to do it. Then I saw people I was at university with, who had gone straight into the editor’s office and gone shooting off into a kind of golden career path in the media. I thought when I was at Cambridge that I had made it. That wasn’t the case.’
Burnham also expresses frustration that, when talking about elitism to the Sunday Telegraph recently, it was perceived as an attack on the Milibands, while his criticisms of the culture of briefing under New Labour were seen as a reference to Ed Balls.
‘It was not an attack on any individual: I was attacking a style of politics.’
That Burnham cares deeply about social mobility is clear: he asks our own intern, Felicity, who is sitting in on the interview, if she is being paid (she’s getting expenses). Burnham wants to end all unpaid internships, which he describes as ‘the exploitation of young people’; he wants to change the law so that all work experience placements are advertised; and to set up a structured national internship scheme so that placements in the offices of Labour MPs, peers and MEPs are filled fairly.
‘Unless you stop this thing where it’s sorted out via a conversation at a dinner party, then you won’t break into those inequalities.
‘There is a difference between work experience and internships,’ he goes on. Lots of people are using work experience in the proper way: a couple of months, shadowing, looking at what people are doing.
‘That is different to when you actually start doing a job, opening the post. That should be paid – simple as.’
To think of Burnham as a northern heartlands candidate rankles because in many ways, he is the quintessential New Labour moderniser. Alongside David Miliband, he has been the most ready defender of the last government’s achievements at leadership hustings. And, like any party moderniser worth their salt, Burnham has thought deeply about how to win back those who live in the south who are excluded from the metropolitan elite: the ‘C2s’ who live in ‘motorway’ towns outside London, scene of some of Labour’s heaviest losses at the general election.
‘My pitch will connect with ordinary voters who left Labour [at the election],’ says Burnham. ‘Actually, it’s more about the south than the north because, grudgingly, the north did largely vote Labour. It was in the south that people actually walked away from the Labour party.’
So – how to get them back? Burnham’s flagship policy, a national care service funded by a levy on the estates of the deceased, is aimed at doing exactly this. And it embodies ‘aspirational socialism’, which Burnham says is his political credo: broadly, collectivism plus aspiration.
‘I have thought very carefully about the policies that are going to appeal to voters in the south. It’s why I talk a lot about care for older people because it’s going to be one of the big issues of this century. It’s where Labour collectivism can help people protect what they’ve made of their own life. If you have a national care service you can help people protect their homes and their savings in a way that the current system doesn’t let people do.
‘I think it’s a policy which can unite the bottom third and middle third of the country. It’s a policy that can speak, for want of a better word, to middle England.’
So, why, then, was Burnham’s idea of a national care service watered down for the general election campaign?
‘My regret is that I wasn’t allowed properly to sell it to the public. Our commitment was watered down because of the “death tax” [the Conservative election slogan criticising a compulsory levy]. I feel that was a mistake because, if you’re going to make a bold policy, something has to come with it.’
Burnham is adamant that an ageing population makes reform inevitable.
‘The truth is that at the moment we have something far, far worse than a death tax – a dementia tax. The more frail you are, the more you pay. If Labour doesn’t stand to correct that injustice in an ageing society, then who does? So I believe I was right to take up a very bold reform.
‘This is what I think Labour lost in its second and third terms: we began with a national minimum wage, a big bold idea. It connected with the public. We somehow lost that; we got ourselves into more piecemeal and incremental reform. I felt what was needed was another big, bold idea to remind the public what Labour was all about, what makes us different.’
Burnham recalls how, during bipartisan meetings on the future of social care before the election, Lib Dem health spokesman Norman Lamb seemed ‘supportive of my direction of travel’. But he suspects the ‘Lib Dem hierarchy’ ordered Lamb to distance himself from the policy once the ‘death-tax’ furore blew up in February.
For Burnham, there is a wider political lesson in this, one that Labour must learn if it is to return to power before too long. Care is just one of a number of issues, he says, that an adroit opposition could use to divide the coalition. NHS and schools reform are others.
‘I think Lib Dems are split on many of these issues. I think Clegg is Tory-leaning – that is becoming absolutely clear. Others in the Lib Dems are Labour-leaning. I think that is the split we’re going to see.’
So can the coalition last?
‘That is in the hands of the Lib Dems. Can Clegg carry his grassroots on some of these unbelievable policy positions that he has now signed them up to? The break-up of the NHS; the break-up of state education; massive cuts to public services; it would appear, all for a referendum on voting reform.’
Burnham hopes that the Labour party will turn to him to exploit those fissures.
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