Andy Burham’s rally this evening had only one similarity with Jeremy Corbyn’s last week: it was held in a place of worship. At the St Pancras Parish Church in London, close to 1,000 people turned out to hear Burnham and take part in a Q&A session. There was no socialist magician, folk singer or rock band — just a few politicians and a lectern. It was a throwback to how Labour politics was done before Corbynmania blew onto the scene.
Keir Starmer, the local Labour MP, opened proceedings by explaining his desire to win in 2020 and party unity were his reasons for backing Burnham. John Prescott was wheeled out next in his usual fighting form. He flailed his tattered 1997 pledge card, telling the crowd ‘we delivered on every single one of those pledges’. He was promptly heckled from the back ‘what about Iraq?’
Prescott went on to recount all of New Labour’s election victories and was heckled again ‘the votes went down! the votes went down!’ — which elicited a sigh from the audience. Prescott lashed out at Blair for his ‘really stupid remark’ on telling Corbyn supporters to get a heart transplant and rubbished the idea of Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt’s so-called ‘resistance’ within the party, comparing it to a 1980s SDP-style split in the party.
Andy Burnham came to the stage with a new slogan: he will be the unifier and overseer of the ‘toughest opposition that this country has seen’. On the Tories, he told the crowd ‘I’ve spent my life running them ragged, I fought them every single day on the NHS’. But Burnham acknowledged the ‘Labour party needs to rediscover what it’s all about’.
His shift to the left was on show for all to see. Burnham warned the NHS ‘will be broken down, parcelled up and sold’ if Labour fights among itself. He said Michael Gove’s education policy was ‘some kids in some schools’ — rejecting the idea of are schools — and said he would relish taking on ‘Mr Gideon George Osborne’ at the Dispatch Box. Taking inspiration from Prescott, ‘I’ll show him what a real northern powerhouse looks like,’ he promised.
Prescott and Burnham were two peas in a pod: both used anti-Tory rhetoric at every opportunity. In fact, there was probably more Conservative and class warfare bashing than at Corbyn’s rally on Friday. Burnham spat out the words ‘Duncan Smith’ and ‘Osborne’ at every opportunity.
There was some class warfare too: Burnham ‘promised to ‘show these Bullingdon boys’ by removing charitable status from private schools. It’s a ludicrous suggestion, given how few people are educated at private schools and out of these, even fewer were members of the Bullingdon Club. And naturally, he promised to stay true to his working class routes.
In the old world of Labour politics — pre-May 2015 — Burnham’s rally would be an unqualified success. Hundreds of people, from all walks of life, turning up on a rainy Monday evening to hear what a Labour leadership hopeful has to say. There were queues around the street to get in and plenty of t-shirts and posters were sold. The whole event had an above average energy to proceedings. But did it come anywhere near the Corbyn campaign? Not one bit – and that’s the problem that Burnham, once the tubthumping conference darling, least expected to encounter during this contest.