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At times it is easy to forget just how deep in the political wilderness the Labour Party currently finds itself. It is 16 years since it won a general election, 11 since it left government.
A third Labour leader is trying to regain Number 10 from a third successive Tory prime minister. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, two years into the job, can look at opinion polls showing the Conservatives still streets ahead of the Opposition despite his manifesto-breaking tax rise.
So as Labour gathers in Brighton for its annual party conference next week, it is not surprising that questions of leadership and direction swirl above Sir Keir Starmer’s head. Nor that as those in Westminster ponder what could come next, one name consistently comes up in conversation: Andy Burnham.
A cabinet minister from the New Labour years and a front-bencher under Ed Miliband, Mr Burnham turned his back on London after twice failing to win the Labour leadership. But as the Mayor of Greater Manchester, he has seen his political stock soar during the Covid-19 pandemic, standing up to both Downing Street and Bute House over restrictions imposed from above.
Speaking to The Telegraph via video link, Mr Burnham outlined his latest pitch to the Prime Minister - a “levelling up” offer that would see more than £1billion spent in his home patch. He also reflected on his decision to take his political career back north, the reforms he still believes in, how Labour can win back the Red Wall seats and what could come next.
Mr Burnham begins with his pitch to Downing Street. In short, he wants the Government to agree to extra spending in Greater Manchester in a move cast as helping Number 10. The mayor wants to overhaul the area’s transport service, merging bus and tram systems to allow travellers to switch between them more easily, all for a much lower ticket price.
It's time to deliver on 'levelling up'
There is also a greener housing push that could cut carbon emissions by a million tonnes. But the pitch is framed as a way to help Mr Johnson put meat on the bones of his “levelling up” agenda, an ambitious but hazy push to reduce geographical inequality.
“I just think levelling up has got to move out of the phase it's currently in where it's vague and it's slightly ill-defined and everyone's arguing about it,” Mr Burnham says.
Submissions have been made to the Treasury ahead of the autumn spending review. There is even an offer of a meeting when the Tories come to Manchester for their party conference next month.
“We'd like to meet. Prime Minister, Chancellor, we are ready to sit down,” Mr Burnham says. “If you want to level up as much as we do, it can happen - if it’s a partnership.”
The initiative is the latest attempt to pressure Downing Street into delivering for his 2.8million constituents - a role of his that the public has grown familiar with in the last 18 months.
Mr Burnham dismissed the claims of “grandstanding” sometimes thrown his way by government folk frustrated with his public bargaining over Covid rules. "I apply a really simple rule”, he says. “If the Government do right by us, I will say so. But if they do wrong by us, I will also say so and I'll do so as loudly and as effectively as I can.”
Leaving Westminster has been 'liberating'
Mr Burnham’s exodus from Westminster happened during the Jeremy Corbyn years. After Mr Miliband’s election defeat to the Tories in 2015, Mr Burnham sought the leadership. He had tried once in 2010 and failed. His second bid brought the same result as Mr Corbyn’s brand of shoot-from-the-hip authenticity and unashamed socialism connected with the party base.
“I guess increasingly in that period the Westminster world started to frustrate me more and more,” he says, hinting at annoyance at being pushed to support interim leader Harriet Harman’s tougher stance on benefits claimants during the leadership race.
“When it came to some of those votes in 2015, in the middle of the leadership election, I wasn't able to be myself, if you know what I mean,” he says. “I kind of hit a point where I'd run out of patience with all of that. So leaving has been liberating. It's been energising.”
The return to the North West after 16 years as a Labour MP - though Mr Burnham was born in Merseyside, not Manchester - is a challenge he has clearly relished.
Give voters something worth voting for
A reform agenda that includes tackling rough sleeping and improving local infrastructure was rewarded with a second mayoral term this spring. Which - as Mr Burnham notes - means he knows something about how the Labour Party can connect with those all important “Red Wall” seats of traditional support in the North that the Tories flipped in the 2019 election.
“I think it's all about giving them something worth voting for, not giving them a sort of a qualified, nuanced offer. Be explicit," Mr Burnham says. He names his pledge to take buses back into public control as an example.
So what about the elephant in the room, his theoretical leadership ambitions? Mr Burnham and his team will be all too aware that his name is endlessly speculated about as a possible successor to Sir Keir should he be forced out.
What does he make of those calls? “Hopefully it is obvious to everybody that I'm kind of enjoying this role,” Mr Burnham says. “I'm in the place that I love, among the people I love. I’m kind of at home. I was always, if you like, outside of my natural habitat in Westminster. So I don't think I ever was really myself. But I'm kind of myself now in this role.”
Mr Burnham has a clear position: He will see out his full second term as Manchester mayor, which means he will remain in post until May 2024. It has not gone unnoticed that is the same month as the next general election; nor that there is a track record of regional mayors serving a second term, becoming an MP and capturing their party leaderships, as Mr Johnson can attest.
Mr Burnham is young in political terms, only 51. He has twice sought the leadership. Even with the clear current focus on Manchester accepted, does he still have an ambition one day to be the Labour Party leader?
I'll serve a full second term as Manchester mayor
“I'm not going to say no because if at some point that, you know, was a realistic possibility, then, you know, obviously I'm not necessarily going to say no to that,” Mr Burham says, hesitating a little over his words. “But it's not something that I see happening anytime soon, if at all, genuinely, if at all. I'm going to do a full second term here as mayor, I'd like to see Keir win a general election and I'll be doing everything I can to make that happen. You know, I will not be returning to Westminster anytime soon.”
Mr Burnham’s candid response, saying he will not "rule out" a future leadership run, is refreshing. “I’d rather just answer it honestly,” he says, rather than coming up with a politician’s “fudge”. But he stresses again: “I can say to you quite clearly: Full second term, won’t be returning [to Westminster] anytime soon. Building what we're building here is really important to me.”
Mr Burnham’s time away from Westminster has also given him fresh thinking time and during the interview he spells out a series of major policy reforms. On social care - an issue he understands better than most as a former health secretary who tried to get Gordon Brown to grasp the nettle of reform - Mr Burnham backs tax and spend.
He is in favour, in broad terms, of 10 per cent of someone’s assets going to the state after they pass away - a form of wealth tax - in return for an NHS-style free social care service.
Boris Johnson's social care reforms 'fail basic fairness test'
He is critical of Mr Johnson’s reforms, saying: “Making the younger generation pay for the property-owning generation’s social care I think fails a basic fairness test coming out of the pandemic.”
Some politicos are skeptical of Mr Burnham’s rebirth as an arch Westminster critic after he spent two decades moving up the familiar ladder from special adviser to MP to minister to cabinet minister. But, at the very least, he is now an advocate of a sweeping overhaul of how politics is done at the centre.
Mr Burnham says he wants a more proportional voting system rather than the traditional first-past-the-post approach, perhaps something like Scottish Parliament elections where there are regional lists as well as constituency races.
He also wants the whipping system, which sees the party leadership dictate to MPs which way they should go on House of Commons votes, scaled back, with that approach only adopted for the most critical votes. Plus he favours an overhaul of the House of Lords.
King of the North? I’m not even king in my own house
As the interview comes to an end, Mr Burnham makes clear his public support for Sir Keir, a politician broadly on the same moderate wing of the party who hopes to reset his leadership at the Labour conference. “I think he's done really well,” Mr Burnham says of Sir Keir. “He's in a strong position now to build and set out his stall and I fully expect him to do that at the conference.”
Which leaves one question hanging. Is he really, as supporters and headline-writers alike often dub him, “the King of the North”? “I’m not even king in my own house, never mind of the North,” Mr Burnham says with a chuckle. “I suppose maybe there will come a day where I'll gather everybody at Knutsford services and march down the M6 if things don’t go well with the levelling up deal.”
It is an image, one suspects, that will leave not one but two party leaders sitting a little less comfortably.