My mind was made up in the Labour leadership contest yesterday afternoon and my mind was simultaneously changed. How could this be?
Firstly, my preferred – my only – choice of candidate is Andy Burnham. He was charismatic, warm, razor-sharp, approachable and, crucially, on top of his brief. I saw and heard Andy at a packed Bristol Trinity Centre. He was introduced by a friend of his, and hero of mine, Steve Rotheram, the MP for Labour Walton. I knew instantly who he was when he walked into the hall because I have followed his wonderful work for the victims of Hillsborough, seeking to achieve answers, justice and ultimately closure. He is that rare being: a great politician, which probably explains why he secured 82% of the popular vote in his Liverpool Walton constituency at the general election.
Andy Burnham did not give a long speech. In fact, the introduction would be brief, he explained, to enable the audience to engage him with the issues they were interested in debating. I was expecting more of a broad brush approach but Andy was quite specific in some areas about the ideas he believed in. We were particularly interested in his ideas for the care sector which has been neglected by politicians of all colours, but especially by the current blue one. It is clear that as the population ages, the role of carers will become ever more important. There is no real national strategy at the moment, but under Burnham there would be. Similarly, his ideas for widening educational opportunities for those who would like to go down the road of a more technical education rather than an academic one got a lot of heads nodding with approval. Our overwhelming view was that Burnham gets it.
I found him to be honest, too. He supports the government spending 2% on defence spending (maybe he might change his mind when he gets to see the groaning bureaucracy that lies behind the front line in procurement and general bean-counting), he does not support unilateral nuclear disarmament at a time when the world is becoming an even more dangerous place in which to live. He also acknowledged his mistake in voting for the Iraq war and explain in some depth as to why he did (which was having heard the personal stories of the Kurds at the time).
I learned more about Burnham’s ideas in an hour or so than I did from Ed Miliband during five long years of opposition. Whilst I do not pretend to know yet what Britain would now look like under Labour, that’s not a problem. Miliband failed to articulate a vision for Labour and Britain which was one reason they lost so badly. Burnham hasn’t started yet.
I didn’t agree with everything he said, but I agreed with most of it. He did not attack or swipe at Miliband, he didn’t even mention the other leadership candidates at all. His main attacks were directed at the real opposition, the Tories and everything they stand for.
Was I impressed? Yes, very, and I am not easily impressed by politicians. I grew up with Tony Benn as my MP. Benn was a brilliant speaker, no doubt about it. He spoke at length, without notes, with great passion and power. But I would leave a Benn public meeting, buzzing from the atmosphere which would often be electric, but half an hour later, I would be struggling to remember what Benn said actually said. I bought his books, his arguments for socialism, and find little more than slogans and rhetoric. He deplored personality politics, but was as personal a politician as you could get. He later became a “national treasure” when the media looked upon him as a harmless old codger and not some kind of threat that he never really was and in fact the only threat he ever was to Labour electability. Burnham did not speak in soundbites with clap traps throughout his speech and much of it was brutal and difficult to listen to, but that’s honesty at work.
I look forward to hearing more of what Burnham has to say over the forthcoming years and more than that, I hope he is able to come up with an over-arching vision of what Burnham’s Britain will look like. He is not a once in a generation politician like a Thatcher or a Blair but he is a clever man who, it seems, could well have many of the answers for some of the most difficult questions of our age.
If a week is a long time in politics, then five years is a lifetime and then some. So Labour’s next leader has plenty of time to set in place a Labour Party fit for government. I’ve been persuaded not just to support Burnham, but also to rejoin the party I left when Blair took us into Iraq.
Far from being the least worst candidate, I now see Burnham as the best.