Page last updated at 21:07 GMT, Wednesday, 26 May 2010 22:07 UK

Burnham seeks to stand out from leadership crowd

By Iain Watson
Political Correspondent, BBC News, Leigh

Andy Burnham
Andy Burnham says Labour needs to rediscover its "heart and soul"

It was a Labour leadership launch with a difference.

There has been some criticism that the majority of the hopefuls just look too similar.

Four of them were government advisers who had all been to Oxbridge then effortlessly went from advising ministers to becoming ministers themselves.

So Andy Burnham was keen to differentiate himself from the Miliband brothers and Ed Balls in terms of style, if not substance.

Instead of visiting marginal constituencies or speaking to think tanks, he made his pitch at a sports stadium on his home turf of Leigh, his safe Labour seat near Wigan, and in front of a home crowd.

But the audience wasn't packed only with Labour supporters.

It was open to the wider public and while his speech was impassioned - pledging to put the heart and soul back into the party and to adhere to the "working class principle" that you should look out for each other - much of the rest of this event was politics-lite.

A colliery band from what had once been a mining area in Lancashire tried to ensure the four hundred or so voters who had turned up to watch on a drizzly evening weren't too brassed off.


A children's choir defied the elements with a rendition of 'Sunshine In Your Heart.' Then some junior rugby players put on a robust display before a video endorsement from the England footballer Jamie Carragher.

Andy Burnham was introduced by a friend of his mother's - none other than Phil Redmond, creator of the long-running north west soaps Brookside and Hollyoaks.

Perhaps he could offer some advice to the leadership candidates on how to make the contest more engrossing as so far it doesn't seem to have caught the public's imagination, though Labour membership has edged up since polling day. There may well be more drama before 22 September when voting closes.

David Miliband: 51
Ed Miliband: 47
Ed Balls: 24
Andy Burnham: 14
John McDonnell: 4
Diane Abbott: 0
Candidates require the support of 12.5% of Labour MPs - 33 - to take part in the election. MPs can nominate themselves

But the first challenge for the contenders is to get on the ballot in the first place.

They need to be nominated by 33 Labour MPs each by 9 June and so far only the brothers Miliband have exceeded that requirement.

It is only then that the candidates can go forward to the contest proper, when party members and trade unionists get a say too. Andy Burnham has so far amassed only 14  nominations - including David Blunkett - though he believes three more are in the bag.

So he wanted to demonstrate the strength of support he has in the north of England to his Labour colleagues from elsewhere in Britain in the hope they will give him a nomination, while suggesting that if local people will turn out to see him on a wettish Wednesday he is just the sort of person who can bring voters back to the Labour fold.

Ideas sought

He certainly won't be short of ideas.

That's because he asked everyone who attended tonight's launch to give the next Labour leader - whoever that turns out to be- a good idea by writing their words of wisdom on the back of a postcard  and handing it to him.

He will also create a virtual 'suggestions box' by making a similar offer to those who visit his website.

It will be easy for his opponents, internally and externally, to suggest that this proves he is too vacuous to be a leader. But, a cabinet minister for almost three years and now shadow health secretary, he does have his own ideas of how Labour should change.

He believes that Labour lost touch with its traditional voters and that its party conferences should in future encourage not stifle debate - that control freakery should be a thing of the past.

Unlike some of his opponents, he told me he doesn't intend to rubbish Labour's record in government and - while he doesn't think the issue will dominate the campaign -  he won't try to rewrite history by distancing himself from the decision to go to war in Iraq.

But in his speech tonight he said Labour "lost its way" in some respects and is critical of his party's apparent inability to listen to what many of its own supporters were telling them - especially on immigration and on inequality.

He doesn't back the new government's policy of a cap on migration from outside the EU but he does say that Labour hadn't acknowledged  that wage levels were adversely affected by immigration.

Wealth critique

He also believes that Labour became too relaxed about the gap between rich and poor - a luxury it can't afford in an age of austerity.

The latter part of that message may well be endorsed by Jon Cruddas, the former deputy leadership candidate who decided recently not to run for party leader but who is influential amongst some of the trade unions affiliated to Labour.

In an article in the New Statesman this week he makes it clear he hasn't relegated himself to a mere spectator in the current contest and advises Andy Burnham as well as Ed Balls and David Miliband - who have also mentioned immigration as a reason for Labour losing support - in the most robust terms that they will have to be careful in how they approach the issue.

He says any approach to wooing the working class by promising to "crack down on those hoovering up welfare and take the gloves off when it comes to dealing with new arrivals" is doomed to failure.

There are two candidates from the left of the party - Diane Abbott and John McDonnell - who are hoping to get enough nominations to challenge for the leadership.

But if they fail to do so, it would appear that even those who have chosen not to compete will ensure that the long debate that Labour will conduct on why it lost the last election won't be devoid of substance.

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