Sir Keir Starmer is a worthless leader of the opposition. His politics, recycled Blairism and extreme factionalism together repudiating everything he told Labour members during his leadership campaign, are stale and uninspiring; but he is also incompetent and therefore ineffective. Labour has been unable to establish a convincing lead against a Tory government mired in scandal and led by a man whose reputation lies in tatters for not just much of the country, but even for many of his own party’s MPs, a considerable minority of whom have no confidence in him. In addition, Starmer’s commitment to resign as Labour leader if he is fined by Durham police for breaching COVID-19 lockdown regulations by having a beer with staff may lead to his premature exit. Unsurprisingly, the following question has arisen: who should be the next leader of the Labour Party?
A tentative answer has emerged in the form of Andy Burnham, who has been the mayor of Greater Manchester since 2017 and before that was Labour MP for Leigh from 2001-2017. Burnham ran for Labour leader in both 2010 and 2015. In a recent poll 17 per cent of respondents said Burnham would be the leader most likely to make them vote Labour, the largest percentage apart from ‘none’ (18 per cent) and ‘don’t know’ (23 per cent). Among 2019 Labour voters, only deputy leader Angela Rayner ranked higher than Burnham, and by a margin of one per cent. Socialist journalist Aaron Bastani, answering who he ‘would … go for as [Labour] leader next’ responded: ‘Burnham, most of the PLP is utter crap. Alas…!’ The Greater Manchester mayor has also received laudatory coverage in Tribune.
Clearly some on the left consider Burnham a worthy candidate for leader of the opposition and even Prime Minister. Indeed, Burnham has expressed support for the recent rail strikes and rail renationalisation, acted to bring buses into public ownership in Greater Manchester, supported a National Care Service in his 2015 leadership bid, and favours proportional representation alongside an elected House of Lords. Burnham, it appears, could be a disruptive influence who shakes up the Labour Party and delivers a more innovative soft left policy approach. But that picture is misleading.
The lesson of Keir Starmer’s leadership is that history matters in deciding who the left should support. Because of the oligarchic structure of the party, it is possible for a Labour leader to be elected on a false platform and never be held accountable so long as they do not upset the PLP. It is therefore vital that potential candidates are evaluated according to their careers as a whole – not solely by what they say. This is not a perfect method, but it is the best available; and had it been applied to Starmer, his chance of victory would have been much reduced. The same mistake must never be repeated.
Burnham’s record should give the left little confidence in him. He served faithfully as a Blairite MP and thus climbed his way up the career ladder to cabinet posts, becoming Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport in 2008 and then Secretary of State for Health in 2009 under Gordon Brown.
Burnham began his career as an MP as Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Blunkett, Home Secretary between 2001-2004, who was responsible for introducing measures to crush civil liberties in the name of counter-terrorism. Foreign nationals were held in Britain without trial, in effect doing away with habeas corpus, a principle established by Magna Carta in 1215. The intelligence services were also authorised to begin collecting telecommunications data en masse, a fact that was kept secret until years later when it was disclosed by the Conservatives in 2015. Blunkett dismissed concerns raised by human rights groups, lawyers and civil liberties campaigners like Shami Chakrabarti as ‘airy fairy’. Burnham voted in favour of nearly all of New Labour’s anti-terrorism legislation, including the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists without trial. He toed the New Labour line on toughening asylum rules. He voted for the Iraq War, and against investigations into the war as recently as 2016; since then he has reflected on the time before the invasion as ‘an incredibly difficult period’ but has not called for anyone to be held accountable. In 2011 he supported establishing a no-fly zone in Libya and in 2016 he voted in favour of renewing Trident nuclear weapons.
If Burnham’s positions on foreign policy and civil liberties are lacking, it might be responded that he at least has left-wing economic positions. Yet when it comes to rail renationalisation, Burnham was absent from 2016 votes on the subject. And while in 2015 he proposed replacing university tuition fees with a graduate tax, in 2004 he voted against abolishing tuition fees, which far from being ‘loony left’ was Liberal Democrat policy. That same year he voted to raise tuition fees. And while Burnham agonised over Labour’s decision to abstain on the government’s cruel 2015 welfare bill, a bill which he called ‘unsupportable’, in the end he fell into line with the whip and refused to rebel by voting against it alongside 48 Labour MPs. How did he justify his position? ‘I wasn’t prepared to split the party and make the job of opposition even harder.’ The sentiment – I went along to get along – is typical of Westminster, where backbone is in extraordinarily short supply.
There is an old proverb: tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are. In his 2015 leadership bid, Burnham was supported by Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader who witch-hunted the left, in particular the Militant Tendency, in the 1980s; Rachel Reeves, Blairite archfiend and Vice-Chair of Labour Friends of Israel; David Blunkett, Burnham’s old civil-liberties-despising boss; New Labour donor and Blair’s envoy to the Middle East Lord Levy; Hilary Benn, a key coup plotter against Corbyn in 2016; Owen Smith, who challenged Corbyn in the 2016 leadership election and lost; and none other than Sir Keir Starmer himself. Burnham voted for Starmer in the 2020 Labour leadership election and has expressed no regret since, instead lauding Starmer as a ‘brilliant man’.
For all these reasons it would be a rather sorry political error for the left to support Burnham when his record is public and clear as day. Trapped as it is in a political desert, the left looks to anyone for water, and all too often it turns out to be sea water. Some may say that Burnham’s views have changed. This is possible. But far more evidence of such a change is necessary to even consider him trustworthy. A few years as a mayor and some public support for policies to the left of Attila the Hun does not outweigh nearly two decades of Blairite service in parliament.
There is a tactical dimension to electing the next Labour leader that also demands our attention. At the last conference Starmer and his friends successfully introduced an oligarchic rule change requiring candidates for the leadership to receive nominations from 20 per cent of the PLP instead of the former 10 per cent. This means it is now impossible for a leftist of the Socialist Campaign Group or Jeremy Corbyn variety to get on the ballot. In such circumstances, some on the left may argue that it is necessary to back a ‘soft left’ candidate if only for the purpose of damage control. Whatever the merits of this reasoning, it does not follow from such an argument that we should delude ourselves about the politics of the candidate we support. Burnham is ultimately not a sound choice for the left, and if he is to be supported, there must be no illusions about this thoroughly untrustworthy politician.