If you’ve ever had the pleasure of boarding the East Midlands Rail service from Ely to Liverpool Lime Street on your four-hour expedition home from Cambridge, you have my sympathies. But three important things happen on this journey north. The vast fenlands of the East of England surge upwards into the lush hills and valleys of the Pennines. Then, perhaps stereotypically, silence ceases past Sheffield and is replaced by chatter. Yet the biggest transition happens once the train sputters into Manchester Piccadilly.

Behold the UK’s second biggest city, one that has experienced a radical transformation in the past two decades. Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, who just joined our zoom call, previously described the metamorphosis better than I ever can: “If you want proof that Manchester is changing, just look at its skyline”.

Burnham has been the Metropolitan (or ‘Metro’) Mayor of the city since 2017, the first to ever take the helm, signalling an end to 16 years in Westminster as MP for Leigh. “I left Westminster in the end because I just realised the system could not deliver equally for all people in all places,” he tells me.

“I just realised the system could not deliver equally for all people in all places”

Burnham prides himself on ‘common sense’ politics, such as cheaper fares on public transport, tackling homelessness, and delivering justice by campaigning for a ‘Hillsborough Law’ after the second inquest in 2016. In March, Burnham signed a “ground breaking” new devolution deal, granting Greater Manchester control over its housing, transport, technical education and budget.

Earlier this month, Burnham announced his first point of action after Manchester was granted the devolution deal- the aptly named “Manchester Baccalaureate”. To support the two-thirds of young people who do not go to university, the new educational scheme will point students towards subjects such as engineering, business and computer science alongside other core subjects. On the new policy, the Mayor noted, “there has always been a snobbery here, that university and academic is best and with technical education we’ll somehow just let people just find their own way. We’re trying to fix it.”

Does the media professed “King of the North” never tire of trying to articulate so-called ‘common sense’ policies to the rest of the UK? “I feel like I’m trying to get people to hear the issues that don’t get heard in the normal run of things in Westminster and actually in the National press”, he explains. “For example, not once in the 16 years I was in Parliament did bus fares seem to register. This is what we’re doing, we’re making that London centric system wake up to the reality of what actually goes on outside of it.”

“I’m trying to get people to hear the issues that don’t get heard in Westminster”

Considering I’m talking to Burnham just after the local elections, he suggests there are “two big reasons” for the Conservative Party’s loss of over 1000 council seats. Firstly, “there’s a real loss of trust. What I picked up as I went around campaigning in Greater Manchester was a very strong feeling of ’It’s time to get rid of them”. Secondly, Burnham argues “people are increasingly seeing the Labour party as a vehicle for change” but admits Labour’s strategy is “a work in progress”.

On hearing this, I query what policies he would ask for in Labour’s 2024 manifesto. Burnham argues social care must be on the agenda in 2024, asserting that “you cannot have a divide between the way health care is provided and the way personal care is provided in a century when everyone’s going to live longer.” He also says housing must be a priority. “As Mayor, I’ve got a really clear image of just how broken the housing system is. I would say make good, safe housing a human right in UK law.”

Before he was Mayor, or even a politician, Burnham was a floppy-haired Engling at Fitz in the late ’80s and an ad hoc Sport reporter for Varsity. Perhaps not all is lost for future humanities grads insecure about their employability, as Burnham states: “I was lucky to read English. I think it’s helped me in the political world to have confidence over communication.”

“You can still make change in what is a very imperfect political system”

From a working-class background in the North-west, Burnham said he sometimes felt imposter syndrome during his time here. “You know that kind of sense of ‘should I be here?’ ‘I’m going to get thrown out’”. Regardless, he affirms that “I only feel positive about my time there”.

Did Cambridge prepare him for Westminster? Burnham says that “by the time I was in my third year, yeah, I kind of had my sights lifted in a way that I just don’t think could have happened elsewhere and I felt I could be in the sort of the world where it was most challenging. I’ll hold my own there and succeed.”

I ask the mayor to highlight his best memory of Cambridge. “I need to say meeting my future wife there, don’t I?” Burnham tells me dutifully.

After graduation, Burnham aspired to become a journalist, but was hindered by nepotism and London-centrism. I ask the Mayor why, 30 years on, my situation is almost identical.


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“I actually think it’s worse”, he replies. “Certain networks don’t want to break open to talent from outside. It’s quite fortunate if you can arrange the work experience for your son or daughter because you went to a dinner party with the editor of The Sunday Times or the Director General of the BBC, but that keeps opportunities within a certain social set.”

His eventual career in politics was spurred when he began working for Labour MP Tessa Jowell, but politics had long been a part of Andy’s life. Returning to Cambridge after the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster, Burnham says the experience “radicalised” him: “It was almost like it hadn’t happened here (…) it really brought home to me that the country was in fact two different worlds.”

With our call coming to end, Burnham tells me “the most satisfying memory was the day of the second Hillsborough inquest, when the verdict was changed from accidental death to unlawful killing”. I can’t help but think about his earlier comment that “you can still make change in what is a very imperfect political system” as he tells this story proudly.

With his time in Cambridge foregrounding that “imperfect system” in Britain, Burnham concedes: “I think on a personal level, the inquest meant the most in that it goes to the heart of my own journey as well.”