Exclusive: Andy Burnham supports gay marriage but won’t change mind on lesbian IVF
Andy Burnham is half an hour late for our interview but is pleasingly apologetic when he finally greets me at the entrance to Portcullis House.
Currently third among the Labour leadership contenders, behind David Miliband and Ed Miliband, he has rejected the proposed two-week campaign break put forward by David Miliband and will be back on the battlebus after taking his family for a few days’ break in Scotland.
The shadow health secretary admits the campaign is tiring but appears to be enjoying the fight. The least well-known of the five contenders, he is positioning himself as the working class boy who will listen to Labour’s core vote.
As with PinkNews.co.uk’s interview with David Miliband last month, we asked our readers on Twitter and Facebook to submit their questions to Mr Burnham. Changing the law to allow full marriage equality was the most popular question.
I put this to him: “I wholeheartedly support it. Throughout my political career, I’ve spoken of the importance of commitment and relationships and I’m also somebody who believes in the absolute equality of every human being and that should be equal in the eyes of the law. so I think, actually, I was the first leadership candidate to support gay marriage.”
It’s true – he was. Before Ed Balls, Diane Abbott and David Miliband gave their support to the issue, Mr Burnham gave an interview to the small Catholic publication The Tablet in June in which he said civil partnerships could be seen as “second-class arrangements”.Cuttings emailed by his press officer after our interview confirm this.
“It’s actually quite important, that,” he adds. “I don’t want it to be seen like, oh, he’s falling into line with the others. It was something I… it fits with my basic approach to politics and policy.”
But on other issues, he sticks to his guns.
On blood donation, he believes in lifting the ban “theoretically” but says there is a safety issue at stake. He says he has sought advice from scientists on the issue and “looked seriously” into it.
He says: “You have to listen to the scientists. You can’t be 100 per cent [sure] with screening. Because of that reason, you need to be 100 per cent certain about the blood supply. It’s an issue we need to keep under review, as the science and quality of screening improves, but at this stage, I think, you can’t change the position.”
I start to ask about his 2008 votes on IVF treatment for lesbians but he’s got a bone to pick with PinkNews.co.uk, because we pointed out that he was absent for several 2002 votes on gay couples adopting.
On gay adoption, he says his wife was already over her due date to give birth to her daughter when he missed those votes.
He said: “I voted for gay adoption. And missed some of the other votes on the bill. But from memory, my wife was already overdue when I came down to vote on gay adoption. She was already well overdue by that point. So I feel I was unfairly represented on my record with those votes.”
But he won’t change his position on the ‘need for a father’ in IVF treatment, saying that he sees it as an equality issue for newborn babies.
He said: “Let me be absolutely clear – I support IVF for lesbian couples. The reason why I voted as I did goes back to what I said a few moments ago. It’s about the immutable equality of every human being. See, for me, I think there is a difference when you’re taking about adoption, about children who are already in the world, and when you’re talking about the legal framework around the creation of a new life.
“And for me, it’s an equality issue to say that a young child brought into this world should have access to all of the support networks. A male role and a female role model. And for me, that is an equality issue for that new life. Everyone should be able to draw on a father figure and a mother figure.That isn’t to say I don’t support IVF for lesbian couples.”
I ask, surely in the practical sense, that could exclude lesbian couples?
He replies: “My take on this is that there should be a named father figure for the child, who accepts that role and is there as a support to the young person as they grow up. To be honest, informally, it is probably what happens. The reason why I voted as I did, is that I believe it is an equality issue. It’s just getting that balance right, between aspiring to the very broadest base support network there is, and balancing the rights of the child with the rights of the parent.”
He disagrees that the legislation, if passed, would have essentially deemed lesbian couples inferior to heterosexual couples.
“That wouldn’t be my intention.They could be perfectly good parents, in the same way as any parents. What I was saying that. . . it’s an equality thing. There are moments, as a child, that you need a whole range of support. It’s aspiring to give every child the broadest support there is. For me, it’s different when it’s about the creation of new life.
“If, looking back, it had placed too great a barrier in the way [of lesbian couples having IVF], I would look again at that. But the principle of a named father figure, I don’t think that undermines a lesbian couple.”
We turn to homophobic bullying, something gay equality charity Stonewall has made its main focus.
Mr Burnham cites Stonewall’s posters as a good way to address the issue, but says that a particular problem now is the “insidious” bullying that happens online and through mobile phones.
“We’ve got to be very very sophisticated about how we tackle it and how we support victims,” he says. “It’s about schools having a good anti-bullying policy and the very clear message, the equality message.”
He was born and remains a Catholic, the only one of the five leadership contenders to have a strong faith. I ask about the balance of gay rights and religious rights, citing the example of faith schools being permitted to teach that homosexuality is wrong.
He pauses and concedes it’s a “difficult question”.
“As somebody who grew up a Catholic, I often find myself at odds with the church in how they deal with moral issues. It’s always been the case that as an MP I’ve felt at odds with the church.
“Many many times, I’ve had to resist some fairly strong lobbying on stem cells, gay adoption, all of the different issues that we’ve faced.
“Errrm…. I personally would like to see a basic minimum of information given to young people without the extra moral guidance on top of it. And if the school doesn’t want to do that, it should find a way of giving young people access to other agencies to provide that impartial advice. When it comes to sex and relationship, it should be impartial. Whether I would take away all the freedoms of the church, I don’t know. I believe very strongly in balanced and impartial advice to young people.”
He also supports older role models in schools and one-to-one support, rather than the “awkward” information given out in classrooms.
As health secretary, Mr Burnham was responsible for dealing with issues such as HIV infections. He’s proud of working with Terrence Higgins Trust on a campaign to stamp out HIV stigma and says that working for the then-culture secretary Chris Smith in 2007 changed his views. Lord Smith was the first MP to announce he was HIV-positive.
Mr Burnham said: “I didn’t know that. First, it was a shock. Then I look back at how Chris did his job and it challenged my own [prejudices], about what impact HIV might have on someone’s life and their ability to lead their full live. So I did a lot of work with THT as I thought it was important.”
He calls for police to take a “strong lead” on homophobic hate crime, particularly in cities such as Liverpool, which has seen a number of serious homophobic attacks in the last few years. He also advocates reminding the public of new Labour-led laws on stronger sentences for laws aggravated by hate.
At this point, an advisor leans in to remind Mr Burnham he’s attending Manchester Pride with his family later this month and is also hoping to attend a vigil for victims of hate crime and those who have died on AIDS.
We move away from gay rights issues to talk about the Labour Party, and why it lost the last election.
“Good question,” he says. “We lost the faith of the voters who supported us in 1997. The reason we lost that connection was that they felt we weren’t on their side any more, that we’d lost what Labour stood for. They just didn’t feel like we had our priorities in the right place. For me, it really came down to that sense that we weren’t working hard to create fairness in society, that Labour was always helping people not like them, people who were working hard, trying to save, that we weren’t helping them. All the issues around housing and agency workers. The sense that we’d lost our connection with our voters. And immigration became a lightning rod for those issues.”
And, he adds, the smoking ban.
Although he admits being berated by constituents for the ban, he won’t agree with lifting or modifying it, calling it a “great change for the better. It’s definitely here to stay.”
He’s been exercising his working class credentials in interviews, citing his own career path, his father’s job as a telephone engineer and his grandmother being forced to sell her home to pay for her care.
He won’t comment on the backgrounds of the other candidates, but says: “I can give Labour a leader that ordinary people north and south can relate to. They can look at my background and say, okay, I’m prepared to believe he might understand what my life is like and the pressures of ordinary living.”
Voters need someone they can relate to, he says, claiming that stories about David Cameron cycling to work while his car followed damaged his credibility.
He’s positive about his chances, saying he’s in a “very clear third” position. “I always knew I was coming from further behind, that the public didn’t know me as well as some of the others. The good thing of a long race is that it gives me time to come through and I am beginning to get my message over and there’s still some way to go but I believe I can do it.
“For all of the progress Labour has brought, I still think we live in a very unequal society. And my passion in politics is challenging a a world where the postcode. . . you’re born determines where you end up in life. And sadly, for all of the things Labour has done, that I think is still very much the case. And arguably, social mobility in this country has gone backwards right now, because of the difficulties young people face in making their way in the world.
“This trend towards unpaid work experience, unpaid internships limits the opportunities in the professions to a very small group of people, either those who’ve got well-connected parents or can afford to work for free or both. I think it’s harder today than it was for me when I graduated in the 1980s.”
“Aspiration socialism” is the focus of his campaign. He explains this as the state acting to ensure the least-well off get equal chances, such as advertising all work experience placements by law and ending unpaid work, calling it “exploitation”. He also calls for an end to the “cruel system” of older people losing their homes to pay for care.
To conclude, why should gay Labour members vote for him?
“Because I have a belief in the immutable equality of all people. That goes to the heart of my politics. I have shown down the years that my voting record is consistent with my belief in the equality of all people. That is socialism actually – whatever someone’s background, sexual orientation, disability, that they are of the same worth.
“That is the absolute cornerstone of my politics. I hope that they will see that I was the first person to say I believe in gay marriage as an expression of that.”