Andy Burnham’s 15 years as an MP have not been uneventful. Since serving as both Culture and Health Secretary under the premiership of Gordon Brown, Burnham has been consistently at the frontline of the Labour party. Since September, he’s been the only one of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership rivals to accept a position in his shadow cabinet, working opposite Theresa May as Shadow Home Secretary. In his own words: “not bad for a runner up.”
When I met Mr Burnham in Exeter, he was in conversation with Keith Owen, the Exeter Labour Party spokesman for Anti-Social Behaviour. Dressed characteristically well in a navy suit, Burnham appeared animated as he discussed Exeter’s problems concerning homelessness and disorderly behaviour, even quizzing me on the late-night habits of Exeter’s student body.
Following a tour of the town centre, Burnham and I perched on a wall by the Cathedral for an interview. It was a peculiarly peaceful setting in which to interrogate a Shadow Secretary of State, as gentle flute music emanated from a nearby street musician.
With the EU referendum fast approaching, it was impossible to escape the question of immigration. Last year at the annual Labour conference, Mr Burnham swore that he was “on a mission” to win back voters from UKIP, claiming that free movement within the EU had “benefited private companies more than people and communities”. I asked Burnham to recall this speech, and if he thought that Labour had done enough to reassure voters’ concerns on immigration. “Getting there,” he started. “The point I continually make is that it’s not helpful for us to talk in very generic terms about immigration; it’s either purely a good thing or it’s purely a bad thing, as the debate tends to go in Westminster and in the media. My argument is that it has a differential impact in different areas. In former industrial areas like [Leigh], the one I represent, it’s had quite an adverse impact at times, in that it has put pressure on public services and has led to undercutting of wages.”
“It’s not helpful to us to talk in very generic terms about immigration”
Nevertheless, Burnham asserts that he remains “positive about free movement overall,” but that alongside this positivity we should be “very much addressing those practical issues.” These comments appear to reflect a wider effort by the Labour party to shift the debate around immigration, focussing more on the pressures of infrastructure, regulations and wages. “For too long London commentators have spoken about it without giving due regard to the poorest places, where the impact is often felt most strongly, and yet the issues of those places don’t get the same airtime or hearing and it kind of makes them feel neglected.” In the face of the anti-immigration rhetoric dominating the EU campaign, it remains to be seen whether this approach will strike a chord with the voting public.
Since his appointment in the shadow cabinet, Burnham has repeatedly clashed horns with Theresa May on the subject of policing. In light of this, I pressed Burnham on how Labour policy would dramatically differ from the current government’s plans. He started by condemning Conservative cuts to the police budget, stating that ultimately “there’s a point where the cuts are really damaging to community wellbeing, and I think we’ve hit that point and probably gone past it now.” His response to the issue is primarily one of funding; “Jeremy and John McDonnell have made it clear that they won’t accept the Cameron/Osborne austerity drive. It’s gone too far, so we would have different spending plans that protect public services, and particularly protect the police.”
However, one area in which the shadow Home Secretary has found common ground with his opposite number, at least in principle, is on the so-called “Snooper’s Charter.” Formally known as the “Draft Investigatory Powers Bill,” the legislation has been criticised as both an infringement upon personal privacy and insufficient in meeting the targeted needs of the Police; Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, has said that “The powers were too broad, safeguards too few and crucial investigatory powers entirely missing.”
Would these broad surveillance powers really help the police in efforts to prevent and deter serious crime? At first Burnham seemed somewhat evasive, “What we’ve seen in the last 10, 15, 20 years is crime migrating from more traditional forms of communication to the digital world, and obviously the law hasn’t kept pace with that.”
However, while Burnham asserts that “a law is needed,” he explicitly distances himself from what the government is currently proposing: “Please don’t take from this that I just buy lock, stock, and barrel what Theresa May is saying. I don’t, I’m challenging her quite vigorously on a whole number of issues.” He specifically mentions internet connection records, and strengthening the “Judicial double lock” to ensure that judges have the full ability to scrutinise decisions made by the Home Secretary before warrants are approved. “There’s a whole range of issues that we’re challenging the government on pretty hard.”
In recent years, many communities in the UK have become increasingly alienated from the people who police their neighbourhoods. I queried what could be done to restore public trust in the Police as an institution. “I think that faith has been knocked a bit in recent times, hasn’t it, with some of the revelations that we’ve seen about Rotherham; in my case I’ve worked with the Hillsborough families, and then in London or other cities you get concerns amongst particularly the black and Asian communities about stop and search. The Muslim community right now I think is feeling very alienated with respect to the Prevent agenda. So yeah, that is a very big question, and I think the police have to continue to undergo a journey of reform with respect to accountability.”
“I think we’ve got a completely toothless and pathetic press regulator”
Indeed, for Burnham it’s primarily an issue of accountability. “I’m proposing a whole series of amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill that’s before the Commons now to strengthen the role of the IPCC, giving them more independence, more teeth. I’m trying to change the position around police misconduct and the ability of police officers to evade misconduct by retiring on ill health. There are lots of ways that police accountability is not as strong as it should be, and so we need to see a continued package of reforms to make police services more accountable to local people.”
Following this up, I enquired if Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) can play a role in improving police answerability, and diminishing its reputation as a closed shop. “I think it’s still a bit of an open question, whether they’re making a difference.” He singles out a number of Labour PCCs who he says have been notably successful: “I’m thinking of Vera Baird up in the North East, or Tony Lloyd in Manchester, or David Jameson in Birmingham.”
Overall, however, he says that the picture is less clear. “I think elsewhere they’ve probably been less effective, so it’s patchy right now. I think overall they’re a step towards more accountability and in the end that’s got to be a good thing.”
With time running out, I ask Burnham a final question on the topic of press freedom and regulation. At first he smiles wryly when I mention the recent controversy surrounding Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, but he quickly adopts a more serious tone when I ask if the government has done enough to implement the recommendations of Leveson. “No, definitely not. Promises were made to the victims of press intrusion, around costs of pursuing libel actions, around the quality of the regulator. I think we’ve got a completely toothless and pathetic press regulator.”
He became particularly emotive when he again raised Hillsborough, an issue on which he has campaigned forcefully throughout his career. Since this interview, fans were exonerated following the inquest ruling of unlawful killings by the police. “The issue I’ve dealt with most, Hillsborough: if a certain newspaper were to do that again tomorrow, i.e. tell lies on its front page about traumatised victims of a tragedy, which is what it was, they still couldn’t get a front page apology.” He continued, “So IPSO’s not good enough, and they’ve abandoned in my area this whole idea of Leveson 2, which was about a second stage inquiry looking into the relationship between the police and the media. So on every level, the government has failed the victims of press intrusion, they have gone back to their old ways of cosying up to the media establishment.”
Whilst avoiding a suggestion of misconduct on the part of John Whittingdale, Burnham refused to hold back when criticising the government. “I don’t have any evidence that it’s linked to the Culture Secretary, in terms of his private life, I wouldn’t make that allegation. I think it’s more a case of, politically, they’re not minded to take a tough decision in the public interest, and I think it’s disgraceful.”
So what does all this tell us about Andy Burnham MP? Throughout my time with him, he seemed in good spirits, but he was at his most enthused when discussing the issues that affect individual people. Press intrusion, the Hillsborough enquiry, cuts to public services: these are the topics that drive him to make a difference. It may be a long road to the next general election, but the Shadow Home Secretary appears optimistic.