Burnham might be the man to take Labour back into Government

Burnham clenched fist

OK so it has been amusing while it has lasted, but reality is beginning to set in now. In the last few days I have picked up definite moves towards Andy Burnham among those who told me they were voting for Jeremy Corbyn.

In many ways I think this is what Burnham’s Parliamentary supporters were hoping for when many of them added their name to Corbyn’s nomination papers. Burnham was in danger of being described as the “leftist” candidate by the Tory press. There is certainly no danger of that now, though in many ways he is the continuity Miliband candidate. He has certainly benefited more than Yvette Cooper has. Liz Kendall’s campaign died before it ever really had a chance to get going.

Andy Burnham is picking up support as the “sensible Corbyn” candidate. He’s clearly marketing himself now as the “electable Corbyn” – hence his rip off of the rail nationalisation shtick, which turns out to be just current Labour policy and would leave the railways in private hands until at least 2030.

Usually credible commentators suggest that Burnham isn’t going to win because he isn’t picking up huge numbers of second preference votes from Corbyn. But unless Corbyn comes third, currently unlikely, that is irrelevant. It is how many preference votes Burnham gets from Cooper and Kendall – and I can’t see either of them having huge numbers of supporters that would back Corbyn. Indeed if faced with the possibility of the 1983 manifesto being renewed, I suspect most Blairites and Brownites (Kendall & Cooper supporters) will instead back Burnham with their second preferences.

I’ve been quite critical of Andy Burnham. He was front and centre of the Miliband election strategy, and he was arguing for a Health policy that was directly opposite to what he implemented as Secretary of State for Health under Gordon Brown just five years ago. So frankly everything he said was taken with a big pinch of salt.

But if you assume that, just as with the welfare abstention last month, he was being loyal to the Shadow Cabinet, actually what he says now, when fighting to become the next Labour Prime Minister in 2020, seems to indicate he gets it.

He seems to understand that people didn’t feel Labour was on their side. That millions of traditional Labour voters had given up on the party, and voted either UKIP in England & Wales, or SNP in Scotland. That you need aspirational voters who voted for the Tories while holding their noses in 2010 and 2015 to turn instead and vote for Labour.

Speaking at Ernst & Young – a City accountancy firm that would have been strictly off limits over the past five years – Mr Burnham acknowledged that the country believed that Labour had abdicated any economic competence. He said “across the UK, people had lingering doubts about our economic competence.

“Many were undecided right up to the wire in this Election. They were no great fans of David Cameron, his Conservatives or the Coalition.

“But, in the final analysis, they saw Labour as a risk they couldn’t take.

“They did not see clearly enough how we would help secure their family or their business.”

I’ve heard some Labour supporters suggest that this was because the electorate were selfish. Damn right we are. When the electorate can see what you are going to do for the man down the street, are they not entitled to ask what about me?

Some people have also suggested that Labour won because the Tories terrified the electorate in England with the threat of the SNP. But again, here I think Mr Burnham gets it. Had Miliband been on track for a majority, that threat wouldn’t have had any teeth at all.

In taking his first speech to the heart of the City, Mr Burnham accepted that Labour couldn’t turn its back on business and expect to win. “I am clear that no political party can win a British General Election if they convey any sense of being anti-business, wealth creation or success.

“But I also want you all to know that I am not the kind of person who just comes to make speeches like this to say the right thing and tick the right boxes.

“And Labour needs to do much more than that if it is win people’s trust again.

“You only win if you can communicate a convincing sense of who you are and what you are all about; why you want the job; and what you will do with it.”

Reading his first speech almost makes him seem like the Blairite he used to be. He speaks of aspiration, of helping people up rather than helping them out. He was the first in his family to go to University, and he worked in the real world before joining politics. The line he uses about hard graft could come from any George Osborne speech.  “The Labour Party I lead will be once again truly the ‘Party of work’ — where, if people are prepared to put in the hard graft, their accent or background must never hold them back.”

The concept of hard graft allowing you to get on has never been a Tory one. It has been appropriated by the Tories since the 1980s, and Labour has abdicated that ground for all that time – except between 1997 and 2010, when they had leaders who understood the electorate.

There is a lot I don’t like about Andy. His constant refusal to hold a proper inquiry into the Mid Staffs hospital disaster condemns him. His refusal to meet the relatives of the victims looks foolish in hindsight. Older readers will recall Dick Crossman’s handling of the Ely Hospital crisis in Cardiff, revealed by a (then) young Tory lawyer, Geoffrey Howe, in 1969. Rather than worry about the political consequences of what had happened on Labour’s watch, he published the full 83,000 page report and demanded action to make sure “it never happens again.”

More worryingly, as he seeks to take enough support from Corbyn to ensure he is the clear second, if he cannot win in the first round, he seems to be shifting to the left – though on rail nationalisation his drift leftwards, as cynically populist as it seems, does at least reflect where the country is.

But Mr Burnham isn’t trying to persuade me to vote for him; I haven’t voted Labour in 15 years. He hopes that, if elected Labour leader, he can build a coalition of the electorate that includes many who currently vote for a variety of parties – including some Tories. His rhetoric will appeal to that broad coalition.

If Andy Burnham genuinely believes the rhetoric he uses in his stump speech, then perhaps Burnham could be the first Labour leader in 18 years to increase the number of Labour MPs in Parliament. Perhaps he is even the man to lead Labour back into Government.

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