Watching again the video of Andy Burnham facing thousands of jeering Liverpool fans in the Kop at Anfield on the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, you can’t help but be moved.
Isolated, emotional and struggling to hold back tears, he stops his pre-prepared speech, delivered on behalf of the Labour Government of which he was a part, looks up at the faces of his fellow Liverpudlians with watery eyes and just silently nods his head in agreement as thousands, 30,000, chant ‘justice for the 96’.
It is, in some ways, a quite unbelievable moment. A time that showed the spin of New Labour had well and truly spun off, leaving a politician cruelly exposed to a heart-wrenching and raw reality – that Liverpool had cried injustice for 20 years and nobody, not even their own political kith and kin, had listened.
Many in the stadium had just simply had enough of being fobbed off by politicians, the media and the judiciary telling them they were to blame for the disaster that cost so many lives – and Andy Burnham, the then secretary of state for culture, media and sport, felt the full force of their frustration.
He left Anfield that day a changed man but sure of one thing; justice for the 96 fans that had died at Hillsborough on the 15 April 1989 did now need to come. It was a personal and painful epiphany for him; he had been at Villa Park supporting Everton in the other FA Cup semi-final that day while friends had been at Hillsborough and while he sat in the pub afterwards, hearing the stories from those who returned safely, he felt an increasing anger – but 20 years on, standing in Anfield facing the ire of fans who wanted something done, he was a member of a Labour government headed by a Prime Minister who had ruled out the possibility of a fresh inquiry into Hillsborough, just as the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, had done in 1997 just months after Labour had swept into power on a ticket of reform. It was a day of conflicting emotions for Burnham but he says he is glad that he faced the hurt, glad that in some ways, a boil had at last been lanced allowing him to be the one that forced change.
He tells me that his own political advisers had told him not to go to Anfield for the anniversary, that he would be in danger of breaking some of the golden rules of political spin; showing emotion, admitting a wrong and looking alone. But he says he knew he had to go and he knew what he was walking into. His main preoccupation that day was trying not to breakdown. So he stood there and he took it but as he walked off the pitch, he knew nothing could ever be the same again.
His mobile rang almost as soon as he moved out of public view. It was a call from the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who told him he had done something very brave and said it was the right thing to do. The next day, Burnham flew up to Glasgow where the Cabinet was meeting and he told Brown that they had to act. He wanted a fresh inquiry with full disclosure of all the police records. Brown immediately backed him and the Hillsborough Independent Panel was established.
Burnham and I, coincidently, sit down together on the first anniversary of the publication of the Hillsborough Report which, effectively, cleared all the fans of any wrongdoing and exposed the police for lying and revealed the outrageous extent to which the establishment colluded to defame a city. Burnham is clearly emotional as we relive that 2009 speech and what then followed.
“It’s indescribable, really, to explain how I felt that day and it’s true, I was isolated but I knew what I was walking into. I’m from Liverpool and knew how people felt, I expected something to come and strangely, I almost wanted it to come. If I hadn’t been the minister I would have been on the terraces shouting at the minister so I look back and think it was the best thing to have ever happened.
“I had been worried about going to Anfield because while I wanted to open up Hillsborough, I didn’t want to cause any embarrassment for the Government because frankly, we were having enough difficulties as it was by then.
“It was a massive conflict of interests for me because I didn’t really care about any other issue more than Hillsborough but I was also being a minister backing up an official line and in the end, I couldn’t do that anymore and what people probably don’t realise is that in advance of the 20th anniversary, I had put out a call for full disclosure so it didn’t just happen because I had a bad day at Anfield, I had already issued the call.
“And you know, Gordon, to his great credit and I don’t forget these things, the minute I walked off the Kop, he was on the phone saying I had done the right thing and that was the moment it all changed or really, the day after in Glasgow was when it all changed.
"We were doing cabinet round the country in a desperate attempt to drum up support and so I went immediately from an emotionally difficult time for me at Anfield to Scotland where the cabinet was meeting and I couldn’t think about anything else and although cabinet agendas are usually very set, Gordon told me I could raise it and I basically said we needed to have full disclosure of the files. I will never forget the moment that Gordon said, ‘we will back Andy on this’.”
I don’t doubt Burham’s pain or conflict over Hillsborough but you can’t help wonder what happens to a man, born in Liverpool into a working class family, whose friends were at Hillsborough on the day of the disaster, that becomes a politician and later a government minister but ultimately was complicit in allowing the drift over a cover-up to to continue for so long.
Was it because Liverpool, football fans and inequality made it easy to simply blame a city and allow prejudice to prevail and that he was as much part of the establishment as the next man? He clearly struggles with that question himself. He talks about the establishment as if he wasn’t part of it before saying Labour should have done more.
“Yeah, you are right and maybe we should have done more. Labour didn’t do enough and some people on our side find it difficult when I say that but I will keep saying that. How could it be that a whole city was crying injustice for 20 years and London wasn’t listening and I don’t just mean parliament, I mean government, the media and the establishment, in the broadest possible way, and maybe the new government of the day – us – wanted to be the establishment and therefore it wasn’t prepared to challenge the establishment and that was a problem.
“I think your question hits the nail on the head. I think Hillsborough goes to the heart of class in this country and I think it is that significant. I think when people look back on it, Hillsborough will be seen as a pivotal moment in British social history where in a fairly unprecedented moment, the full weight of the establishment fell on a grieving city. There have been things in our past when ordinary working-class people have been treated in this way but not in the 20th century and how could it happen?
"I think you are pointing at it; it was the end of a decade where certain people were demonised by certain parts of the media – trade unionists, football supporters, people from Liverpool and that all came together on that day and when you ask that question, how could this injustice stand, I think it was because people in parliament and in the media stoked anti-Liverpool feeling throughout the 1980s and into the 90s and there was a climate of distrust that allowed injustice to carry [on] and that makes me feel angry now.
"I don’t think it could have happened in any other city … maybe Glasgow, possibly, because there are parallels between them and that’s fair comment. I think we are definitely saying it wouldn’t happen at a polo match or a cricket match and I hear the establishment repeat the lie about drunken fans at Hillsborough but if you go to Lord’s, you will see some drunken fans there and that’s alright because it’s not football and again, there was prejudice at the time about football, about Liverpool, about trade unions and it all came together in Hillsborough.
"I don’t think any other city could have got through what Liverpool got through in the way it has because for us, the true meaning of solidarity is alive and well in Liverpool and we may be materially poorer than other parts of the country but my god, we are much richer in values – the red and blue together.”
Burnham talks a lot about real feelings and real people and his admiration for the families in Liverpool who have remained dignified in the face of such onslaught and slander. I tell him that his view of life and politics does seem to jar with the more metropolitian view of life that his rivals in the contest to be leader of the Labour Party displayed in 2010.
“Am I too real to have been leader of the party? Goodness me, it is just how I am and maybe looking back, I did run the anti-London thing too much during the leadership contest but it is me and of my 12 years in parliament, there have been times when I have been disillusioned, not just with parliament but with how the London scene works and I guess that Hillsborough embodies it, really, because they, we, couldn’t hear their voices in London.
"People talk about being real in politics and it can sound like they are saying it simply because they think that’s what needs to be said. Maybe I didn’t get it [leadership] because I wasn’t good enough but I am glad I went through it and it has made me a different politician, a better politician and I have no regrets.
“I feel happier as a politician that I have done it because for the first time in my political career I have spoken with my own voice. I am loyal to the party but I was never a total identikit Blairite or Brownite, I was loyal to both, but coming from my background, I was never going to be the London-based, on-message candidate and it allowed me to break out and speak.
"Maybe I am more mainstream or traditional Labour but I do feel we had lost touch a little with our roots and Hillsborough illustrated that for me because we weren’t listening to our own city, we couldn’t hear it and that illustrates a party that was too close to the Murdoch media at times and too close to the London establishment. If we had listened to our own, we would have heard much earlier what the likes of Margaret Aspinall [founder of the Hillsborough Family Support Group] says about the whinging Scousers sometimes just being right.
“I look back on my era of politicians, I think we did look a bit one-dimensional and a bit cardboard cut-out with one message, and here is your line to take and while I wasn’t completely trapped in that, when you go over the line in a leadership contest, you have to be yourself and question why you are there and what you are doing in politics and you have to talk with your own voice because no one is speaking for you, you are putting forward your own thoughts and beliefs. I am proud I did that and I don’t think you can go back and it has definitely changed me as a politician and hopefully, for the better.”
But surely when he looks at the poor poll rating for Ed Miliband as leader, he must think ‘if only’?
“No, no, no. Ed rightly won and he connected with people because he said, very clearly at the hustings, things that Labour people had not heard for a very long time and he has shown leadership since. I don’t regret standing but I think the right result was reached and I think he has put us in a right position to win the next election. I think nobody should underestimate the challenge of being in the first term of opposition.
"It is really hard coming out of the government mindset and the fair comparison for Ed is looking back at Labour in first-term opposition and you think back to 1979 to1983 opposition and we were nowhere to be seen and in those circumstances, Labour often turns in on itself and it takes massive leadership to make us not do that and so we must get behind him now and we can win.”
One of the issues for Labour is, I suggest, a lack of firm policies that even on something like the so-called bedroom tax it has been unable to make a firm commitment that it would abolish it if it gets into government. Although there is a much anticipated announcement expected at conference this week.
“It’s hard in the middle of a parliament, with the financial outlook as it is, to make commitments,” says Burnham. “But as the general election gets nearer, I think we will be able to make more…”
But surely the very idea of repealing the hated spare-room subsidy should be the meat and potatoes of a Labour offering?
“Well, I think you know that’s what I would want to happen but I am not Ed Balls and don’t want to make problems for him. Things need to be done properly but if it were possible then I think we should abolish the bedroom tax as it is an affront to decency but additionally, as far as I can tell, it is not even saving money and in Wigan, they tell me it is costing money, so I think there is a compelling case to get rid of it but I don’t want to be a lone voice causing problems from the sidelines. I am part of the team and commitments have to be made when we look a things in the round but I think there’s a compelling case to get rid of it completely because it fails every test but mainly, it fails the decency test.”
There is one policy that Burnham is very keen to push as shadow health secretary and that is his vision for an integrated health and social care service – very similar to that already occuring in Scotland, as it happens. He believes this could be a policy that puts Labour into the driving seat as it approaches the 2015 general election. Basically, one service looking after the whole person.
“I ran a debate on social care before the last election because I think it is the ‘big issue’. I think people are way ahead of politicians on this and in England, governments of all colours have for many years had an approach of disinvestment towards social care and allowed people to pay charges, etc and what that has left us with is a malnourished, minimum wage, zero-hours social care system dishing out social care in 15-minute slots, with barely time to make a cup of tea, never mind have a meaningful conversation and so my argument is that that will never provide enough care for my parents or for anyone’s parents.
The message we are sending out is that looking after someone’s parents is the lowest calling you can answer in society and that can not possibly be right, so if you are serious about changing that then you need to be serious about saying we need to pay differently for social care and I am, so I don’t shy away from that. Simply, the status quo in England is fundamentally unacceptable in an ageing society.”
Does he have the backing of the two Eds – Miliband and Balls – for this vision for a 21st-century NHS that puts people at its heart?
“I do. I got given permission earlier this year to make a pretty big speech that raises those huge questions and we are in the midst of that consultation now and if we as a party were worried about having those debates, I wouldn’t have been allowed to do that. And hopefully, at this conference, and I say hopefully because it has not happened yet, [we] will endorse a pretty big principle which is that social care is going to be intergrated in to the NHS.
"That is an historic step, to have one service looking after the whole person in the 65th year of the NHS and so we have made massive progress because both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have backed me to put those proposals on the table.”
Working out how this new service would be paid for remains unclear. The last time Burnham came up with a plan ahead of the last election to impose a levy on death duties, the idea was shot down. He says now that the funding mechanisms are being worked on but echoes his party’s Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, when he says that political parties need to be brave enough to say that if you want a quality of public service then you need to find a compelling answer for how to pay for it.
Burnham was in Scotland earlier this month meeting with Labour’s health team in the Scottish Parliament and was encouraged by Richard Simpson’s approach to pricing on alcohol by using the taxation system and says he hopes to get the issue back on the table in England.
He was also impressed by the developments around health and social care integration and praises the preventive work being done as a result of free eye tests in Scotland, which I mention may be under threat from his own party’s commission on universal benefits. He says he hopes to see more integration on policies between Scotland and south of the border but also identifies an issue which he believes arose as a result of devolution.
“There will always be differences in approach but I think what happened in the immediate days after devolution – and I was a huge advocate of devolution and actually, a supporter of the north-west assembly because I think we felt that it would be the protection against a future Tory government – is that it had an impact on Labour politicians and the downside was that we grew apart a bit from our Scottish colleagues, who went for free personal care and the like, for good sound policy reasons but they had different priorities to us down south and that built in some divisions and some of my colleagues went up the road to Scotland and said things that were seized upon by the nationalists and I think there was a feeling that we were sometimes just causing the party in Scotland a problem. We misjudged the context and we missed the mood change and we would blunder up to Scotland and not appreciate the sensitivities of it all but then I think it built up a fear among us going up there at all and that was a bad thing, a really bad thing.
“I think Johann has done a great job, she’s really down to earth and she understands the lives of ordinary people and I just think she is doing a terrific job but there is a bit more alignment we can get back and from my perspective, I think there needs to be. I am going to be leading a charge here and I don’t know if it will cut any ice with any Scots voter but I want northern England to say, ‘for God’s sake, help us out. If you vote Yes you are saddling us with the Tories in government’.”
So Scots should help save Liverpool, save the north from the Tories?
“Well yes, maybe you should, because I have always felt that we have more in kind with you than with London and I look across the north at Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle and we identify more with you than we do with the south of England, we face similar issues and challenges and I think we are a bit stronger when we work on those things together.
"And maybe people in Scotland don’t feel any great affection to the north of England but I think they do and where a Yes vote leaves us is with a higher chance of a Tory government. My appeal would be to get the leaders of those northern cities up there to Scotland to say, ‘please, recognise that we are better together fighting together’.
“Salmond dumps us in with the South East of England and I very much ran for leader on the idea that the country is unequal and it is not fair on the north that the political power, the media power and the financial power is all nested in the south or in London, to be more accurate, and that is why in government we did try to do some of that rebalance, like with the BBC going to Pacific Quay and so on.
“I just think politics based in borders is just bad politics and there is more in common between Liverpool and Glasgow than divides them so we are better off keeping that sense of solidarity rather than drawing that arbitrary line and saying you are over there and we are over here.
“I feel I am British first but if you come from where I come from in Liverpool, given a choice, you support Everton before England and I can trace Scottish and Irish roots and a connection to Wales. My middle name is Murray, I am Andy Murray…Burnham, my mother is a Murray and that came via Scotland. Identity is all mixed up but people in Liverpool perhaps don’t feel hugely English and are not beating the drum for English nationalism but more feel that whole Scouse Republic of Liverpool thing. People’s identity is much more complicated than the simple nationalist view of it all.
“That is why I am talking quite passionately about getting English Labour MPs back up the road and for me, sitting down with Neil [Findlay] and Richard [Simpson] and Rhoda [Grant] and others and saying, let’s get health policies that can be consistent across England, Scotland and Wales. Wouldn’t that be a good thing, pulling in the same direction as opposed to pulling our separate ways? Devolution, in its early days, was about doing something different and it needs to enter a different phase where we start talking again more about a UK-wide policy because in the end, that helps everybody.
“I would feel really genuinely sad if Scotland votes for independence, not just for our own self-interest and in the extra difficulty we would face getting a Labour government in England but I also don’t want to drive up the M6 and get my passport out or have to drive on the right when I want to drive on the left…”
So what are you going to do for Scotland in the event of a No vote?
“That’s a good question. I think this whole notion about rebalancing the whole country economically would be something we would look at, for instance, you look at HS2 not going up to Scotland and I know everyone talks about the cost and I’m not making a spending commitment here but that is the kind of investment that we need to question why isn’t it going up to Scotland or similarly, broadband investment. I believe, fundamentally, that the country is too unbalanced and you have more opportunities if you live in the south of England and so I want a country that is rebalanced in terms of its infrastructure, culture and so on and one that is supporting manufacturing and again, I’m not making spending commitments here, but you can see where I am coming from.”
Where Burnham seems to come from is a complex mixture of his roots, an insecurity based on class, his political experience, what his head tells him and what he feels in his heart about power and how it should be used. Hillsborough has become his touchstone and while he will say that it has changed him, so too has his tangible sense of disillusionment around some of the gloss of New Labour. He has talked about the party having crossed a line. In government, Tony Blair made him ‘minister for communicating NHS reform’ and I wonder how a down-to-earth northerner justified a title that could so easily have fallen from the script of The Thick of It.
He laughs and says: “I went home and decided to do that job but do it differently and I went and work shadowed staff and I listened first and acted on what they said. Look, I am really proud of what we did in government and I don’t disown what we did because we made a lot of changes for the better and that means a lot to me.
"Yes, we made some mistakes but if I look at the state of Manchester and Liverpool, the two cities I most care about, they are now fundamentally different places from when I grew up, the schools are different, the hospitals are different – my dad had a heart bypass towards the end of Labour’s time in government and he waited three weeks and that wasn’t because I was Health Secretary. I checked for the hospital – Broadgreen and Liverpool – and it was two years wait before we got in.
"I don’t want to reel off all the things but we did some fundamental things that made the country better. There were some things that I look back on and wish we hadn’t done but you learn from that and you reflect on that and opposition is fundamentally different and you have to stop thinking like a government and think like opposition.
"What I am doing with health and social care is going back to first principles and asking what kind of system do we need in the 21st century. It has made me question the fundamentals of what we did in government and that is all part of the process but now it is no fun – we want to be back in government. I think the country is getting more unequal before our very eyes so we can’t let the Tories get back in in 2015.”
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