Andy Burnham: Labour needs to become more enthusiastic about devolution

Sienna Rodgers

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has declared that the Labour Party “needs to become more enthusiastic about devolution” in an exclusive interview with LabourList about his role during Covid and bid for re-election.

“I struggled more and more with Westminster the longer I was there,” Burnham told LabourList when asked whether he is most at home in his current mayoral position, after for years serving as an MP and in various cabinet posts.

“In this role, you can speak with authenticity,” he said. “I’m not plotting any return to Westminster. I think devolution is something the party really needs to get behind. This party of ours needs to get a plan together for the north of England.”

Referring to the Conservative slogan of ‘levelling up’ to tackle regional inequality, Burnham said of Labour: “It needs to get its own version of levelling up. It needs to become more enthusiastic about devolution. And I think it starts next year.”

The Labour mayor later added: “The government fought an election on the North, and this year it’s been a bit exposed as not really, really being there for the North, because it’s been trying to lock us down without giving us the support we need.

“There’s an opportunity opened up again for Labour to come in and say, ‘right, now hang on a minute, we really want to give more power to the North, more power to the North to do more for itself’.

“More ability to put Labour policies in place ahead of a Labour government. I think it’s an attractive story. And we’ve got to get in there and own it. Before we let the government back in.”

While making the case that Labour nationally should advocate more strongly for devolution, Burnham revealed to LabourList that he is exploring the idea of a ‘Northern Labour Manifesto’ for metro mayors to develop and share.

On the mayoral elections taking place in May next year, including his own combined authority, he said: “It’s such an opportunity for the party. And I think we’ve got to use it as a bit of a referendum on English devolution.

“I think the party should be saying: ‘If you want more of this, more of a mandate for the masses, more power for local areas and combined authorities, then go out and vote in these elections’.

“‘If you feel that your area hasn’t been fairly treated during this pandemic, make your voice heard in these elections.’ And I think it’s exciting.”

With reference to Labour’s Tees Valley mayoral candidate Jessie Joe Jacobs, Burnham added: “Jessie and I were talking today about whether we could have a Northern Labour Manifesto. Could we agree, as mayors, that we will all do the same policy?

“So I’ll give you an example. In Greater Manchester, we’ve got something called the good employment charter, which is about a real living wage, banning enforced zero-hours contracts, closing the gender pay gap in a really substantive document.

“Steve Rotheram has pretty much taken the same template, and they’re calling it the fair employment charter. It would be great if Tracy [Brabin] and Jessie could get behind it as well, because then we build out the power of some of these Labour policies from the bottom up.”

Westminster reforms

Burnham came out in favour of scrapping the whip system as it currently functions in parliament, saying: “I’ve come to this view that I think we should get rid of the whip system in parliament. Let people be advocates for their places.

“Let them be free to really represent and really be champions of their areas. And yeah, of course, on budget votes or the crucial confidence votes. But just trust people that they will broadly vote with the Labour way, just allow them just to be that bit freer.

“I think in terms of making the argument, if northern MPs, Labour MPs, got together and forced a Labour or a Conservative government to change their spending priorities on transport, Labour’s standing would go up in the north, if they saw those MPs acting in that way.

“But the whip system doesn’t allow that. It kind of makes everyone all fall into a different position. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons why the way politics is organised in Westminster doesn’t help people be really powerful advocates for the people who put them there.”

The Labour mayor also spoke in support of Lords reform, telling LabourList: “I would say, let’s have the House of Lords as a senate of the regions and nations, and why shouldn’t elected mayors be in there?

“Because it remains the case in 2020, unbelievably, that the great and the good, many of whom have never stood for election, are making our laws. And parliamentary bills get changed more in the Lords. It just can’t be right.

“So change in parliament, and then maximum devolution of power out to the regions. I think when you add all that together, it starts to feel like quite an exciting proposal. And I think that’s where Gordon Brown is going with his vision of a more federal UK, and I strongly, strongly support what he’s saying.”

No recourse to public funds

The Labour mayor described the policy of ‘no recourse to public funds’, which means some migrants in the UK are not eligible to access to benefits such as income support or housing benefit, as “just morally indefensible”.

Noting that it was “a Labour policy originally”, Burnham said it is “morally indefensible to say that some people can receive no support at all”, adding: “It’s a policy that says destitution is okay, in law. And I just think we should just have none of it.”

He told LabourList: “I’ll hold my hands up Sienna and say this: that policy, I didn’t fully understand it when I was in Westminster. But now in this role, when I see the practical effects of it on the ground… Some of these issues have been a re-education for me, to be honest.”

Covid restrictions

Asked about the debate over school closures as a measure to tackle the spread of coronavirus, Burnham said he had “a slightly different position to the Labour frontbench” as he believed schools “should have been included” in the national lockdown.

I still think we should have done, because schools would have been less disrupted coming out of the national lockdown. You know, because it is the case that kids are being sent home a lot,” he said. “I think schools need to be looked at a little differently.”

On his preferred approach to Covid, he explained: “If I was running this thing right now, I would pretty much have the country in Tier Two. I don’t think there’s evidence that this Tier Three is so much stronger than Tier Two. They’ve given this green light to retail, I don’t think that is sensible at all.”

“The difference between Tier Two and Tier Three, I don’t think is going to make much of a difference,” Burnham said. “I would definitely not have had five days [of relaxed rules] at Christmas. It’s far too risky, what they’re proposing.

“And then when it comes to the new year, I probably would have a steady state of Tier Two, with national circuit breaks around the school holidays so that everyone can kind of see what’s coming and what’s ahead.”

He added: “I think the schools issue was a bit missed by people. The danger is just this mantra that ‘schools must stay open’ doesn’t pick up enough that some schools are heavily disrupted. And there’s quite a random impact on the kids.”

Asked whether end-of-year exams should be scrapped in England as they have been by Labour in Wales, Burnham replied: “I think we should move to a hybrid where there’s a basic exam but it’s largely done through centre assessments.

“I’m not sure entirely the Welsh model. But I would be happier with the Welsh model than what we’ve got in England at the moment, definitely.”

Coming out of the crisis

Burnham said Labour was “too timid” in both the 2010 and 2015 general elections, particularly on social care. “Why are we so ambivalent about saying everyone should contribute for care, and pay it? And in the same way we do for the NHS?

“I honestly don’t understand it. And that sort of timidity, I think, is a problem that hasn’t necessarily gone away. The party needs to be able to put forward big reforms, particularly coming out of this pandemic,” he told LabourList.

Burnham said he “wouldn’t rule out” a return to Westminster, but added: “I don’t sort of sit here plotting my return. But there may come a day where I think, you know what, that social care reform, I’m coming back to do it.”

Below is the full interview

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