Andy Burnham's authentic self

The mayor tells us about the stresses of the pandemic, how much he has changed since leaving Westminster - and why he would only go back 'to play a leadership role'

By Joshi Herrmann

When Andy Burnham announced in May 2016 that he was going to run to be mayor, critics wondered whether a politician so closely associated with Liverpool was a good fit for the job. “Could a 'Scouser' become mayor of Greater Manchester?” asked a story in the MEN. The paper reported “a flood of criticism” from readers about Burnham’s family roots in Merseyside. “It may seem petty, but even senior local Labour sources have made the point privately,” the story said. 

Looking back, what’s striking about that discussion is not just how soon it evaporated as a political issue for Burnham, but how small-time and trivial it feels. The runners and riders for mayor had no idea how consequential and tragic the coming years were going to be in Greater Manchester, and how much time they were going to spend in the national spotlight. There would be no time for squabbling about postcodes.

Burnham’s first term as mayor has been bookended by the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena in 2017 and the Covid-19 pandemic in the past year, in which the city region he leads has been particularly badly hit. He has come through those crises with his reputation enhanced — his likeness staring out at us from posters, mugs and beer cans, and Twitter memes hailing him as the “King of the North.” Few people nowadays talk about whether an Everton-supporting Scouser is the right fit for mayor and quite a few wonder whether he could one day be Prime Minister. 

“It's just been intense, really, because of what we've been through,” he told me when we met recently in Sackville Park, sitting on a bench near the memorial to Alan Turing. “I've never worked harder.” He looks watchful and slightly tired and admits he has felt "the pressure all around,” in the past year. At the age of 51, grey hairs are starting to show. The experience of being mayor has "been exhausting,” he says.

For someone who is so emotional in his politics, Burnham is notably reluctant to open up to interviewers about his interior life. We know so much about his public performance during the pandemic, but what’s it been like for him personally? “It's been much harder for other people than it has been for me,” he says, deflecting the question. “It has been challenging but I've been at home in a good environment with my family around me and a lot of people haven't been in that position.” 

We meet on the day that the city is waking up from its lockdown hibernation. Within earshot, the canal-side bars of the Gay Village are putting out their tables for the first time in months. Burnham spent his morning calling around barbers in the small town where he lives on the Wigan-side edge of Greater Manchester, without much luck. “There's no special privileges for the mayor,” he jokes, “I was getting the answerphone.” Tonight he’s heading out to Atlas Bar in Deansgate, one of his favourite haunts.

This week, Burnham seeks re-election for a second term as mayor, as Greater Manchester goes to the polls (read our members-only analysis of his manifesto). What’s he most proud of in his first term? “It would be the change we've seen on homelessness because it was a massive issue to take on,” he says. “We've turned a crisis around. There was a rising tide and now it's the opposite.” 

When Burnham was running for mayor in 2017, the number of people sleeping rough in Manchester city centre had risen ten-fold since 2010. He described “ending rough sleeping across the city region by 2020,” as one of his “top mayoral priorities”. On another occasion he said it was his “personal ambition to end rough-sleeping here by the end of the decade.” He pledged to donate 15% of his salary each month to help tackle the issue, via the Mayor’s Charity. “Rough sleeping and homelessness are not inevitable consequences of a 21st-century economy,” he said at the time.  

Burnham has been maniacally focused on this priority and takes a personal interest in the progress of his flagship ‘A Bed Every Night’ scheme — regularly tweeting out the latest numbers. As mayor, he has overseen a dramatic reduction in rough sleeping, according to the official count done by the councils, falling from 268 rough sleepers in 2017 to 71 now, a level we last saw in 2012. But by his own goal of ending rough sleeping by the end of the decade, he has failed. Minutes before our interview, a homeless man was woken up by a mobile medical unit because he was sleeping in the park. After he had walked away the medic told me — off the record — that helping people like this will involve much more than offering a bed at night. 

I tell Burnham about the man and what the medic said, and read out a question posted by a Mill member, who asked: “While I do admire Andy’s commitment to tackle homelessness, in hindsight has it shocked him how difficult it’s been to make a lasting impact on the hardest to reach?” “I knew it was a massive challenge,” he says. “I agree with you, ‘A Bed Every Night’ is a temporary solution, not a long-term solution.” He says a more holistic homelessness prevention strategy will be announced soon. 

For Burnham, this issue is a good example of how the role of mayor can extend far beyond the hard powers afforded to him in the devolution settlement. Homelessness was not in his remit, and he didn’t have a budget for it, but he has used what he calls “the convening power of the mayor” to bring the necessary people together — from councils, charities and public sector bodies like the NHS and the probation service — to make a difference. “It is your most important card, to get people together to agree on a common mission,” he says. 

Another question submitted by a Mill reader concerns the weakest area of Burnham’s record: “Why did Andy miss the problems at Greater Manchester Police?” the member asks. He frowns as I read it out. “Well, I didn't,” he says. “The thing is, I can appreciate, to the outside world, why it might look like it took everybody by surprise. You don't put every conversation you have with the police in the public domain.” He says he has learned from the experience and wants to scrutinise the force more publicly, including by holding regular accountability sessions with the new chief constable Stephen Watson. 

I’ve never seen Burnham look as rattled as he did at a press conference following the devastating report last year from Her Majesty’s policing Inspectorate, which found that the force had failed to record tens of thousands of crimes. On the morning of the media call, Jennifer Williams, the MEN’s political editor, had published a stinging article suggesting that Burnham had been complacent about the chronic underperformance at GMP. Williams, who has been a thorn in Burnham’s side over policing, painted a picture of a mayor who had been asleep at the wheel. When she finally got a chance to ask him a question at the end of the call, you could see the worry etched on the mayor’s brow. He laughed awkwardly — and passed her question to his deputy Beverley Hughes. 

Burnham never looks comfortable talking about the deep problems that have engulfed the second largest police force in England, a sprawling organisation over which he has oversight but not — as he strenuously points out — operational control. In our own interview, Burnham still sounds defensive about the issue and like he hasn’t decided on the right balance of pushback and contrition. “Can I just make one more point on that?” he says as we move on to the next question. “I don't just want to look like I'm pointing the finger at GMP. Policing in Greater Manchester is tough, it's a tough thing to do, particularly when you are hit with massive government cuts.” He adds that he’s “not making excuses for them.”

For most people, the moment of Burnham’s first term that stands out most clearly was when he picked a public fight with the government over the imposition of Tier 3 lockdown restrictions last year. That was when the mayor of Greater Manchester became — in the minds of some internet teens and plenty of Labour voters — the King of the North. Overnight, Burnham was transformed into a rockstar politician and sex symbol, with one writer in the fashion magazine Vogue famously declaring that “Suddenly, Inexplicably, We All Fancy Andy Burnham.”

“I think my son and daughter, who are at university, got a bit of extra attention,” Burnham says recalling that week and laughing. But he pushes back against “those who claimed I was playing politics” and points out that for months beforehand, he had worked constructively with the government rather than criticising them at every available opportunity. With the benefit of hindsight, would he change anything about the approach he took? “I hope it doesn't sound arrogant to say I wouldn't do a great deal differently to be honest,” he says. 

Later in our interview, he returns to the issue of playing politics. “I would want to assure everybody, every reader of The Mill, that none of that was manufactured, none of it,” he says. “Two weeks before I was offering them [the government] to work together to get a solution to the tiers that was going to be good for all sides and they just didn't listen.” 

And then again, near the end of our conversation, the same point is back. “This is the real me,” Burnham says, with his longtime political aide Kevin Lee standing nearby nodding. “The one thing you could not say from this is that it's inauthentic because — Kevin will tell you — this is the real deal.” Then, a few minutes later, it’s back again. “These are things that I care about,” he says, referring to issues like homelessness. He carries on: “So yeah, the one thing that people would not be able to say after these four years, is that in any way inauthentic or spin driven or focus group driven. It's definitely not.” 

The funny thing is that I didn’t ask Burnham about being inauthentic once, or suggest he was playing games or grandstanding. The instinct to talk about it comes from within himself. It’s cropped up in other interviews he’s given (he told the Guardian “My mum always says the real me comes out when I am tired and angry,” and insisted to The Sunday Times that “None of it’s fake”) but hearing him return to it over and over again is curious. 

What are we supposed to make of the hang-up Burnham seems to have about his own authenticity? The uncharitable interpretation is obvious. Burnham is a chancer who has developed a sensitivity about people calling him fake because at some level, he is fake. Burnham’s political opponents (including his Conservative opponent in the mayoral election this week, Laura Evans) cast him as a cynical opportunist who will say anything to advance his political ambitions and get on Sky News. And anyway, what kind of authentic person feels the need to mention that they are authentic every ten minutes? 

He has given his critics plenty of material to work with on this front. Even if you found Burnham’s speeches during the Tier 3 row moving and powerful, there was clearly something a bit hammy about the viral moment with the mobile phone. There’s also only so many times you can hear him talk about his disillusionment with “the ways of Westminster” because you conclude that he’s milking the concept a bit.

Burnham has always been a politician who visibly enjoys playing in front of a friendly crowd, as a flick through his Labour party conference speeches over the years will confirm. “Let’s build an army of NHS defenders,” he bellows in 2010 as shadow health secretary, warning that the health service was about to collapse in the wake of David Cameron’s reforms. In 2015 and 2016, with Jeremy Corbyn installed as leader, Burnham is rewarded with loud ovations for talking about the mistreatment of the miners at Orgreave. The Guardian’s North of England editor Helen Pidd noted in a perceptive profile last year that Burnham’s “biggest flaw is an overriding need to be liked, which can force him to be too many different things to too many different people.” 

But there’s another reading of Burnham’s almost Jungian complex about authenticity, and it goes like this: the former Westminster insider has been on a genuine political journey, and in Greater Manchester, he has found his political vocation. Having turned his back on the bloodless, managerial style of New Labour, he has embraced an old-fashioned politics of representing ordinary people who aren’t getting enough of a voice. In this interpretation, Burnham is experiencing the irritation familiar to anyone who has made a big change in their life, only to find that people haven’t clocked it. 

And in Burnham’s defence, there are plenty of things he does that are frankly hard to square with the picture of him as “inauthentic or spin driven or focus group driven” — to borrow his own words. I’ve watched “online rallies” where Burnham tried to generate some publicity for people excluded from government support during the pandemic with almost no one watching online. I’ve been on calls he’s done about homelessness where there was so little public and media interest that Burnham’s press officer texted, asking me to submit a question. 

Then there are the 4am walks through the city with the aforementioned Lee, his old friend who has worked with him for 11 years and serves as director of the mayor's office. Lee started doing the walks in 2019 to understand who was sleeping rough in the city, and why they were being passed endlessly between different agencies. When he got into work a few hours later, he sent detailed reports to the various public bodies responsible for homelessness, sometimes receiving pushback from people who said: “Why are you doing this? Leave it to the experts.” When Lee told his boss about the walks, Burnham joined him and together they have pioneered a “names not numbers” approach to tackling the problem, putting pressure on councils, charities and the health service to work together. If the mayor is faking his compassion for the people who sleep rough on our streets, he is going to quite extraordinary lengths to do so. 

“This is the way I do my politics now,” says Burnham. “I am really true to what I hear on the ground. I used to live in Leigh and I hear what people say when I'm out walking my dog and going around Morrisons. I tune in to what people say.” He says he learned this style of bread and butter politics — which is light on ideology and focuses instead on emotive causes — during his widely-praised campaigning for the Hillsborough families. “Speak to things that are real and are wrong and give them proper voice,” he says. He admits he wasn’t always like this. “I have changed as a politician over the years,” he says. “I was playing the Westminster game more when I was in the Blair and Brown government. But what I learned was you're actually in this to right wrongs and give a voice to people who don't have one.” 

He says that what animated him so much over the government’s imposition of Tier 3 was the effect it would have on the communities he now represents. “People here in some of the lowest-paid jobs — pubs, betting shops, bingo halls — why were they going to get two-thirds of their wages?” he says rhetorically, recalling how he felt at the time. “Speak for them, really speak for them,” he says. “Taxi drivers — which politician speaks for taxi drivers?” 

He’s mentioned taxi drivers before. In one of his speeches during the standoff with the government, Burnham said he was speaking up for “people working in pubs, in bookies, driving taxis, people too often forgotten by those in power”. Which links to the other notable feature of New Burnhamism: mostly staying out of the culture wars and swerving some of the stances that have alienated Labour’s working class supporters. As the Times columnist Janice Turner put it yesterday: “with a few exceptions, like Andy Burnham or Jess Phillips, voters can’t imagine its [Labour’s] politicians sitting down and enjoying them for all their flaws, frailties and unfiltered opinions.”

Burnham never released a photo of himself taking a knee in his office or waded into some of the more contentious debates of the past few years — was that intentional? “I dislike, if I'm honest, some of the current fad of gestures as opposed to deeds,” he answers. “I think there's too much of it. There's too much of, ‘Everyone is doing this thing so therefore you all have to rush a photo of yourself out onto Twitter doing that thing.’” He catches himself, lest he is seen to be criticising his party leader Keir Starmer, who famously did release such a photo during the Black Lives Matter protests last year. “There's lots of examples of that, that you get,” he says. “Everyone gets drawn into those things.” Burnham doesn’t put flags behind him during his interviews, but he is “a very patriotic person”. His great grandfather died in the First World War. “I care a lot about Britain,” he says. 

Burnham’s great fear is that we think he’s a fraud — that his rage is manufactured and his principles are phony. He knows how important authenticity is in this era we are living in — not just in politics but in commerce and culture too — and probably appreciates how nebulous and shifting voters' conception of “realness” really is. 

But what if he’s wrong? What if Labour does like Burnham’s new style of politics, with its plaintive advocacy for the downtrodden and its blokeish connection with voters who love their country and are baffled by the language and sensibilities of the modern left? Would he consider going back to Westminster to lead the party out of the wilderness? 

“If I was to say I wouldn't consider it I would be lying, so I'm not going to say that,” he replies. “Of course I would consider it, but I'm not expecting it to happen.” He says Starmer is taking the right steps to reconnect Labour to the communities it has lost but thinks “it is a long road.” “The Labour party has rejected me twice,” he says laughing. “It's a brave person who goes back and gets rejected a third time.” He says he is “serving the wider Labour cause in a different way doing what I'm doing.” I push him a little more, and he admits that he would go back “In the right circumstances if that is what people clearly wanted.” He says: “I don't expect anything like that to happen any time soon, if it happens at all.”

And if it did happen, we’re not talking about being the backbench member for Leigh. “This sounds a bit arrogant but I wouldn't go back to Westminster were it not to play a lead... Not necessarily leader but a leadership role in the Labour party,” he says. “So I would not go back just to go back. That would be out of the question.”

Finally, as if he’s getting himself comfortable with saying it out loud, he tells me: “I would go back to play a leadership role — and that doesn't mean leader by the way, I want to stress that — if the party, in the end, made some sort of suggestion of that kind. But I can't see it, and I don't necessarily want it. I want this job.” 

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Listen in: Mill members will receive our full interview with Andy Burnham as a podcast on Tuesday morning. Check your inbox for that.

Read our feature about Andy Burnham’s key challengers here. The full list of candidates standing for mayor is as follows:

  • Nick Buckley, Reform UK

  • Andy Burnham, Labour

  • Laura Evans, Conservative

  • Marcus Farmer, independent

  • Melanie Horrocks, Green

  • Simon Lepori, Liberal Democrats

  • Alec Marvel, independent

  • Stephen Morris, English Democrats

  • David Sutcliffe, independent