Northerners are easy to stereotype: working class, beer, flat caps, Labour, trade unions and football. In the same way all southerners aren’t stuck-up opera-goers and every Scot isn’t a miserly chip-guzzler, this portrait of a typical northerner is insultingly inaccurate — but it is one that some love to propagate. One of those people happens to be Andy Burnham, who is running for Labour leader. As a northerner, I’m not sure that I can take much more of his schtick.
It is frustrating to listen to how much of his leadership has been about being northern. Sure, Liz Kendall frequently namedrops her Watford upbringing but Burnham’s whole persona is based on his Liverpudlian roots. At his campaign event in central London last night Burnham was at it again, referencing his ‘working class Liverpudlian’ grandmother and his frequent visits to Anfield (for his work on Hillsborough). You feel like shouting: ‘this is a leadership contest, not a Monty Python sketch‘. It ought to be about what he can do for his party and his country.
Burnham seems keen for a culture war, a north vs south battle. As well as reinforcing these traditional stereotypes, Burnham plays up to another: calling all Tories evil. Even Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t seem to feel the need to spout as much hatred as Burnham is attempting to. It’s embarrassing. When discussing the government’s latest welfare announcement, Burnham spat out:
‘Duncan Smith, coming out, doing it again, doing what he likes to do best. Playing politics with the lives of vulnerable people, terrorising disabled people.’
Some fools might think IDS is purposefully trying to screw the poor, but mature voters accept he is aiming to help — whether or not they agree with his methods. Burnham went on about the blackness of Tory hearts:
‘they are terrorising disabled people aren’t they? Vulnerable people, who worry about the next statement they will make, who shudder in fear every time they make a Budget in the House of Commons.’
He didn’t hold back from some warfare either, vowing to take on ‘Mr Gideon George Osborne’ at the Dispatch Box in a few years and ‘show him what a real northern powerhouse looks like’. The Chancellor is a particular target for Burnham: ‘Osborne’s dad wants to frack the ‘desolate North,’ he said. ‘I think he wants to do something else beginning with F’. Again, south vs north.
Burnham also told the crowd he has spent his
‘political life fighting the real enemy, I fought them every single day in the last Parliament, he said. ‘I’ve shown you I can do it. I’ve shown you I can take on these Bullingdon boys.’
Yes, the Cambridge boy takes on the Oxford boys. Politics: a boat race by other means. Burnham must sometimes wish that he had been a miner, like Tory Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, or had an illiterate mother like Sajid Javid. But he was welcomed into the arms of the British establishment at Cambridge, then as Tessa Jowell’s special adviser. He has been marinated in Westminster for almost all of his adult life. It doesn’t make him a bad person, but why play the class war card?
Now, imagine this in reverse: if Boris Johnson were running for Tory leader and he made a joke about about fighting Labour in the bingo halls and working men’s clubs, his career would be over. Such attacks have been consistent from Burnham throughout this race and it is frustrating because Burnham could take on the Tories on substantial matters. If he truly believes the government is victimising poor people, which he clearly does, then prove it with statistics? Instead, it’s easier to play into that old stereotype that the Tories are evil – and that is that.
Listening to Burnham, I do end up wondering whether my native Gateshead is the only part of the north where ordinary people don’t go about with a chip on their shoulder, cursing posh southerners and raging against the privately educated. A good chunk of my northern friends voted Labour at the last election, but others voted Ukip or Conservative. There is as much diversity of opinion in the north as there is in the south. And not everyone there is poor, either. Not far from Burnham’s stomping ground is George Osborne’s constituency of Tatton, which is dead posh.
Like many northerners, it’s infuriating to hear Burnham talking about us as if we’re angry little robots, drinking pints and cursing Tories all day long. To be sure, you can find visceral hatred of the Tories in the deindustrialised towns and villages. But the feelings Burnham expresses are far from universal. He is standing to be leader of a party that aims to represent the whole of the country. A good start would be to end these ad hominem attacks, drop the ‘poor little northerner’ act and focus on policies.