First published in Progress magazine
Andy Burnham has just emerged from a meeting at a mosque in Newport, south Wales, when we catch up with him. He has been out on the stump in support of Labour’s police and crime commissioner candidates. But the high-profile brief of shadow home secretary inevitably oscillates between being visible campaigning for Labour and handling some of the trickiest questions of the day around policing, security and integration.
It is the second side of that coin that we examine first, just days since the terror attacks in Brussels. Burnham reflects that events there, ‘have the potential to drive further division between Muslims and the rest of the country.’ He adds, ‘People like Donald Trump are playing into the terrorists’ hands … We have got to work really hard to challenge that, and to call out what this is, which is criminal behaviour by a tiny minority of people that don’t represent the Muslim faith or Muslim people. That job gets harder and harder, but it gets more and more important at the same time.’
It becomes clear that the shadow home secretary believes new foundations are needed for stronger community relations and better integration. ‘We’ve got to rethink our whole approach to tackling extremism’, he says. This may well involve a total overhaul of Prevent, part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. ‘I don’t think the government’s Prevent agenda is working.’ Like academies, he agrees, what was born under a Labour government has become something quite different under the Conservatives. ‘[Now], if somebody perfectly legitimately changes how they dress … in theory they can be reported upon’. From his Newport visit he reports how ‘the idea that the Muslim community is being checked upon, spied upon, creates the conditions for further alienation, and then potential radicalisation.’ He continues, ‘When [David] Cameron makes comments on this agenda, he more often than not is blowing a dog-whistle in the direction of the Daily Mail. He isn’t trying to win hearts and minds in the Muslim community. Really, that’s quite serious.’
Burnham reveals, ‘We’re about to launch a cross-party commission on Britain’s relationship with the Muslim community, because I believe very strongly the government is getting this wrong. We need to rethink it. It goes way beyond party politics’. He is keen to underline the cross-party nature of the support he offers the government on many security matters, but he points out areas of worry. Some parts of the country may be better prepared in the event of a terrorist attack, Burnham warns. ‘We need to be able to reassure people that if a Paris- or a Brussels-style attack were to be committed in Britain, particularly outside London, we need to be able to show the capability to deal with it. I think there is a fear among us that it isn’t there … outside London.’
He reveals he has high hopes of Labour making gains at next month’s police and crime commissioner elections. ‘I’ve just been in Gwent with our candidate there, Jeff [Cuthbert], and I’m hopeful that we can make that a Labour gain. There is hope that we could win Humberside’. ‘We also obviously want to hold on to our 13 [PCCs], and particularly Bedfordshire, [we are] very keen to hold on there … My goal is to increase the number of Labour PCCs, and that’s what we’re campaigning to achieve.’
‘We can be very proud of our Labour PCCs’, the shadow home secretary argues. ‘Vera Baird has done tremendous work on violence against women and girls. Tony Lloyd in my part of the world has prioritised mental health and has done truly innovative work in that sphere, creating alternative places of safety to police cells. You’ve got David Jamieson in the West Midlands who’s set up a victims’ commission. We can point to a record of innovation already.’
Reversing Labour’s opposition to PCCs was one of Burnham’s first acts on taking up his new shadow cabinet role last autumn, and it has permitted a fresh look at commissioners’ achievements without a sword of Damocles hanging over them. ‘We need to embrace the idea’, he says. He is keen to describe this as part of a longer, strong story on crime that the Labour party is able to tell. ‘We should be very proud of what Labour did in government … [For example,] PCSOs have proved their value over the years.’
But no Labour leader has made a major speech on crime since 2007. Has the party fallen back on this agenda in recent years? ‘There is something in that,’ he muses. Despite a very able set of predecessors in the home affairs role, such as Yvette Cooper, Alan Johnson and Jacqui Smith, ‘we did lose a little focus as a party, that Tony [Blair] rightly prioritised antisocial behaviour … making communities more pleasant places to live, intolerance of disorder of any kind. I feel that that was the right agenda. It’s unravelled, unfortunately. This government has not spoken about it at all, and it hasn’t prioritised neighbourhood policing as we did … Maybe it’s fallen off the opposition’s agenda as well. I do care about those things, and very much want to regain the initiative in all of those areas.’
Burnham rates the Labour party’s relations with the police well, arguing that, ‘We’ve succeeded in reducing the severity of cuts [to police forces]’. This certainly echoes the generally good relationship between government and police when Labour was in power, though he is keen to emphasise too that ‘we do need to see stronger accountability in the police’. ‘In the policing bill I am taking a tough line … I want to see more accountability for the police. I think we’re weeks away now from the verdict on Hillsborough. We’ve seen revelations around child sexual exploitation that show that the police aren’t maybe as accountable as they need to be, and so you want to lead that agenda coming out of the Hillsborough verdict.’
Unsurprisingly for a member of parliament who has long campaigned alongside the families of the Hillsborough victims, the disaster figures highly in his considerations. It wins another mention when we touch on the party’s decision to abstain on the investigatory powers bill. Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron dubbed Labour ‘gutless’ for the abstention. Burnham is combative in response. ‘We made the right judgements on that – I feel very strongly about that. It would be irresponsible of the opposition to do anything other than work constructively towards the development of that law’. He holds out the possibility that Labour would ‘withdraw cooperation on the [legislative] timetable’ if it does not secure new protections. In the past, powers ‘have been misused … against trade unions, they’ve been misused against justice campaigners’, he says, naming Doreen Lawrence. ‘The Hillsborough families strongly suspect they were subject to surveillance.’
Labour has clearly undergone seismic changes since Burnham’s second place in last year’s leadership race. How did he feel about being recently categorised as ‘neutral but not hostile’ in a leaked list of Labour MPs allegedly used by the leader’s office? ‘I’m loyal to Labour,’ he jokes. ‘I’m not neutral about our great party. I’m loyal. Loyal is my brand.’ He is also dismissive of recent murmurs from ‘allies of the leader’ that a second reshuffle of the shadow cabinet should take place by September – raising the spectre of an even longer ‘longest reshuffle in history’, beating the last one which was trailed over the Christmas period. ‘Let’s get on with the job. We’ve got a government here that is failing … Where we have turned our focus away from internal matters and towards them, we’ve had success’.
The party has recently been shaken by allegations that antisemitism is overly tolerated with too much inaction on stamping it out. ‘It’s terrible,’ Burnham says. ‘That’s the perception there, and we can’t have that perception at all … I don’t know anybody in parliament who has anything other than a total rejection of any form of antisemitism. However, that seemingly doesn’t apply all the way down the party.’ He continues, ‘I think what you see is some people commenting on the Israel-Palestine situation go beyond the line, don’t they? And take positions that I think are, frankly, abhorrent.’ Should the compliance unit – recently touted by John McDonnell for abolition – receive the resources it needs to carry out its role more effectively? He agrees, adding that, ‘I’m aware of people having joined the Labour party who have been, in the past, virulently anti-Labour … I would question whether some of the people who’ve been allowed to join should be allowed to be Labour party members, because it actually demoralises CLPs … if people are joining who in the recent past were campaigning against Labour.’
And how about a third tilt at the leadership one day, should a vacancy ever arise? Burnham does not quite rule himself out, though his tone is none too keen either. ‘I think twice is possibly enough. It’s not easy standing for the leadership. I would caution anybody who is thinking of it. It’s a challenging thing to do.’ The length of the campaign is a particular concern. ‘The long leadership campaign is hard on every level. It was too long again. It was too expensive … Financially, emotionally, it’s pretty tough, and I think more could be done to make it fairer.’ He reveals he has ‘just cleared the last debt of this latest leadership campaign’ and that it reached around £300,000 in total costs. ‘It’s money that could have been spent campaigning for the party, isn’t it,’ the shadow home secretary asks more pensively than rhetorically, before leaving us to carry on his own campaigning for the party he has so long served.