Andy Burnham has wanted to be Labour Party leader for most of his career. He stood in two leadership elections and failed both times.
Now, as Manchester mayor, maybe he’s found an alternative.
Labour’s actual leader Keir Starmer has only just—reluctantly—begun to challenge the Tories’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile Burnham is making a show of taking a stand.
Burnham placed himself front and centre of a row over the Tories’ attempts to impose “tier 3” coronavirus restrictions on Greater Manchester.
He claims this is—at least partly—about demanding better support for workers who would be furloughed or laid off.
That’s an important demand. He’s certainly caused Boris Johnson more bother than Starmer ever has.
But he knows not to swim too strongly against the tide.
When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown led Labour, Burnham was a Blairite.
As health secretary in Brown’s government, he oversaw privatisation in the NHS through PFI contracts. When Blairism was finished, Burnham twice stood as the candidate for “change”—but not too much change—in Labour’s leadership elections.
And after being beaten by Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, Burnham wrangled himself a job in his shadow cabinet.
As Labour MPs waged war on Corbyn, Burnham kept his distance from both and then left parliament to become Manchester mayor.
Now the vogue in Labour is to talk earnestly about winning back the trust of lost working class voters in its “red wall heartlands”.Burnham has found himself nicely placed to pose as Labour’s voice of the north.
He wants to pose as a defender of working class people who face unsafe workplaces, pay cuts or job losses.
But he also wants to protect bosses who fear workplace shutdowns would hit their profits—and would react by slashing jobs and pay.
Posing as a defender of “the north” lets Burnham pretend he can do both, similar to how Labour uses patriotism to pretend bosses and workers share a “national interest”.
In the end, business will come first. Burnham looked set to agree a funding deal with the Tories as Socialist Worker went to press.
The Telegraph newspaper speculated that it would involve the government handing £100 million in extra support to the Greater Manchester area.
Liverpool was given almost £50 million in support when it agreed to tier three status, covering extra money for local businesses and for enhanced test and trace. Manchester has double the population of Merseyside.
Burnham has managed to boost his standing in the Labour Party. But, like Starmer and the rest of his party, he offers no effective defence of working class people.
Labour faces two ways
Back in February Andy Burnham had already begun to complain that Labour was “top-down” and “London centric”.
Last week he spoke for regional council leaders against tier 3 restrictions.
But rather than an argument for measures to protect ordinary people everywhere, this was pitched as a defence of “the north”.
“The north stands on the brink of being back into where we were in the 1980s—just forgotten and pushed aside,” he said.
“But we won’t let that happen.”
At times he dangerously suggested that the Tories were “exaggerating” the coronavirus number in the region.
Burnham wants to have his Eccles cake and eat it. Like every Labour politician, he tries to face two ways.