Interview: Andy Burnham addresses ‘hurtful’ attacks on his equality record
Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham speaks to PinkNews about Labour’s record, his struggle with faith and the Catholic church, and how his support for LGBT rights caused a rift in his family.
Where did Labour go wrong, and how can you fix it?
We need to fix a lot. In terms of specifics, the biggest failure was on the economy.
There was a failure to explain our record in the government on the economy, we let the Tories define our record and claim that everything was to do with Labour’s mess. Our failure to counter than put us in a weak position when it got to the election.
There were other things we got wrong. Our relationship with business had deteriorated, the manifesto while having a lot to say to my constituents was quite narrow it its appeal.
What can we do to fix it? The biggest problem we’ve got actually is though that the party’s lost touch with millions of people, it’s lost its emotional connection.
So many people at the election said, my mum and dad and my gran and grandad were always Labour, but I’m just not there anymore… There was so common to hear that.
The big challenge is getting that back, and that’s where I start really.
We need to change labour, take it out of the Westminster bubble, get it back in the real world, and deal with issues that people want to see real answers on. We haven’t been doing that for some time now.
Labour has often taken for granted a large vote from the LGBT community – but at the last election PinkNews polling showed the Conservatives ahead for the first time. How do you win back those people?
We lost a lot of communities who would have traditionally affiliated towards us.
We lost Labour-leaning business people, the Asian community, the Jewish community, and then LGBT people as well.
I think it was a combination of reasons. I think it’s too simplistic to say it was one thing, but if you had to pick out one you’d say there wasn’t the trust there on the economy.
I think my experience of the election was, there were a lot of people undecided until quite late, and the work I’ve been doing on the health service I think people were worried about the health service in Cameron’s hands, but they didn’t trust Labour on the economy.
I’m not somebody I’m not one of those who thinks that you have to have a different message for every different community.
Sometimes I think Labour has worked a bit too much like that. It was a simple message around trust on the economy that lost us votes across the board.
With a lot of LGBT people, they perhaps used to vote Labour because they couldn’t vote Conservative because they were scared about what the Conservatives might do, they felt unconvinced that they actually supported equality – but Cameron’s changed that. It was a Conservative Prime Minister who introduced same-sex marriage something that Gordon Brown refused to do. Do you accept that?
He deserves credit, Cameron, for pushing forward on equal marriage.
I would still say to people, the reaction was not pleasant from some parts of the Tory party and worse from UKIP. Some cabinet ministers didn’t vote for it, so I think fair play to him – let’s be honest, that was a brave move on his part.
But has the Tory party grassroots really changed? Well, no I would probably say to that.
You’re right, Gordon did [rule out same-sex marriage]. I was the first Labour frontbencher to change that and advocate same-sex marriage – and it was actually in The Tablet no less, the journal of the Catholic Church.
I think the last Parliament brought a real change and that is a credit to Ed Miliband and the Labour party because we backed it unequivocally, but you can’t not give Cameron credit for that!
Most of the UK has marriage equality, but of course in Northern Ireland, same-sex marriage is still being blocked by the devolved government.
Ed Miliband pledged to be a warrior for LGBT rights around the world, but when people asked him ‘what are you going to do to pressure Northern Ireland on the issue in your own country’, he said it’s a devolved issue and my hands are tied. How do you address those issues?
Things have changed again haven’t they, with the vote in Ireland. What a wonderful moment, I think, as somebody who’s got lots of roots in Ireland. I was watching really closely what was happening.
I wasn’t sure which way it would go – I was hopeful, and Irish friends and family were saying that they thought it would be OK, but when the numbers came through it was brilliant.
I think it makes it very difficult when you’ve got what must be 90% of the British Isles, and then you have a pocket that’s running to different rules.
I mean Ed is right of course, – devolution need to be what it says, but I think maybe the pressure should be more for Northern Ireland to do the same as the Republic and have a referendum.
I think that would be the right and respectable thing to do. In this day and age, in issues of people’s fundamental rights and equality, i don’t think you can have political machinery that blocks progress in that way.
It’s partly a consequence of the Good Friday Agreement, as the DUP file a petition of concern.
Obviously it’s a question of history in terms of all that. My appeal would be, as leader of the Labour party, I will call for a referendum. I don’t think you can impose it – I think you’ve got to follow the logic of the way life has changed south of the border.
I’ve got a little bit of form in this territory, as we challenged them on blood donation. I challenged him over it because he refused to implement the court ruling. It’s a tricky one with devolution, though.
There was a piece in the New Statesman recently that raised issues on your LGBT voting record. In 2008, you did vote for an amendment saying there is a need for a father in IVF care. Do you still agree with that? Can you explain why you voted that way?
I found the piece quite hurtful, actually. If you look back over my fourteen years in Parliament, I’ve voted for everything [on LGBT rights] – I was absent for a vote in 2002 because my daughter was born. It was the day before or the day after. I was on paternity leave – so I’ve voted for everything.
The reason why I say it’s quite hurtful is because that has put me at odds, I have been repeatedly at odds with the Catholic church for all of my time as an MP. I have always been going against what they were saying, and that is challenging.
That creates a personal challenge – I’ve been at odds with my own family, and that has been to some personal cost at times in terms of relationships with people.
I don’t say this to elicit any sympathy but a relative of mine died last night who was a councillor on Liverpool city council for many years, and he and I were very close, but the one time we fell out massively was over same-sex marriage, and it was a real fall-out.
The reason I mention that is I have caused myself to change my own relationships, not just with the church but with members of my own family, in this cause… and then you get things written like that and it feels deeply unfair and hurtful.
In terms of the specific issue, well I voted for IVF…
But you voted for an amendment that says there needs to be a father.
I did. I wouldn’t seek to revisit that issue now, no. I wouldn’t. The law as it is, is right.
Just to explain – I felt that there is an equality issue at stake in that in any context when you’re thinking about IVF you have to think about the balance of parents with children.
You have to think about what are the children’s rights? The issue that I had a concern about is actually now dealt with in law – under any form of IVF, any child can actually trace their biological father, so that is completely dealt with.
I’m giving you an honest answer – I would not seek to change the law, the law as it stands is right. I think looking back, I can understand how the Iain Duncan Smith amendment [was badly interpreted].
It causes me quite a bit of pain really in terms of things I’ve stood out for and said. I didn’t promote same-sex marriage out of tactical reasons in the 2010 leadership election, I did it because I believed in it. I absolutely wanted to do it… and at the time it was a sort of risky move in that Gordon Brown had just [ruled it out].
Just before the last election, Nick Clegg said that he was open to introducing a California style-system which would allow for regulated surrogacy. Currently for male same-sex couples who want to find a surrogate in the UK, it’s unregulated, it works on trust – they might not get the child, and equally the mother may not actually be able to give them the child because there’s no agreement. What’s your view on commercial surrogacy?
Commercial makes me get a bit [uncertain] – that side of it.
I would back a review definitely, I’m just trying to think about the issues involved. The bit of that makes me go a bit “mmmm”..
Is it the word commercial?
No, I’m pro-business! But I think absolutely, a review. No question.
You said famously that you’re devoted to Everton, the Labour party and the Catholic Church, which is a fantastic quote. There are times where the last two of those clash, and I’m sure the first sometimes – for example on sex and relationship education, which is a flagship Labour policy. A lot Catholic schools militantly opposed, say it would violate their religious freedom if they were forced to teach about same-sex couples in schools.
They’re wrong. They’re straightforwardly wrong.
Though I did say that, and the Church did have a part in my upbringing, I am not a regular church-goer, I have to admit – even if that might cause me difficulty at home, in terms of my kids’ schools.
I have no support for their position on the issue. None at all. The government’s weakening of SRE is a real problem – particularly in a context of a school system that is more atomised and less accountable.
If I listened to what my kids tell me is said at school – homophobic bullying is a massive problem, that’s what my kids would say. The casual bullying at school is a real, real problem.
That has to be tackled right there, and not only should SRE be absolutely compulsory, but there must be absolute equality in terms of all relationships within sex and relationships education in terms of how it is taught.
I worry about an education policy that is making the academy or the free school judge and jury – letting it basically do what it wants. It’s the danger with this policy is that you move more and more away from the comprehensive ideal, and more and more towards their own curriculum, their own take on things, their own slant on the curriculum… I think that is a worrying development in education.
You have said you’d hope the Pope would come out for LGBT rights… is that really realistic?
It needs to be said though doesn’t it? I think they’re getting themselves into a really dangerous position.
I think it’s a big moment for the Church, when Ireland of all places votes in that way, for the Church to be massively at odds with public opinion in one of its most loyal heartlands. It’s becoming a real issue- how can they possibly ignore it?
With the previous Pope I would have been the same, and I would have been more critical.
I think with Francis, this is a man who I think is very humane and has a belief in social justice and equality, he’s moved away from the judgemental church, to a kind of much more open, inclusive approach.
I would have a hope in terms of what he says and the way he says them that he would. He is innately sympathetic. The question is – is he prepared to take on the Vatican hierarchy?
He has been saying a lot of things, but in terms in actions – the Church still has actively anti-gay policy, it still actively campaigns against LGBT rights around the world – it had a conference with leaders of listed hate groups, who came to the Vatican last year to talk about how much they dislike same-sex marriage. It’s still, under Francis, an issue that isn’t going away.
No, and I’ll continue to be a voice that challenges that – I have done that all through my parliamentary and political career, I have challenged them.
There has to be an understanding that different parts of society will move at different speeds and we need to respect that, but life is moving, and everybody is moving, and I think views are changing everywhere which is great. And that process needs to carry on. I don’t think people should write it off.
If the Church is going to change I can see this Pope as being the person who might lead it. It’s one thing to say they’ll get from where they are today, to actually sanctioning and carrying out same-sex marriage – but not being actively opposed to it would be a start.
What do you think about the fact that there are openly gay clergy within the Church of England, who got married, and then now they face punishment for getting married, for taking advantage of the civil rights that everyone else has. What’s your view on the Church of England?
It is a problem. I mean, I wouldn’t advocate this situation, but I think that is a problem, absolutely, because then the discrimination is almost state endorsed, isn’t it?
With it being the Church of England, it has a kind of a sanction, if you like.
What do you think of the report that Charles Clark released last week about religion in schools? He made a number of recommendations, for example relaxing the mandatory worship in state schools because it leads to some people feeling excluded and making reforms to religious education; perhaps, turning into religious and moral education. How do you feel about that?
I haven’t seen his report, to be honest. If it’s Charles, it would normally be eminently sensible because he is an eminently sensible man. My children are at a faith school. Why? I’ve always kind of believed that the values that come through, and the values that I was taught through Catholic social teaching, were Labour party values basically.
I have always believed in it for that reason. The bit that I don’t like is the teaching of RE to the exclusion of all the other faiths, which my kids’ school don’t do.
But, my worry is that, if you do go down that path, it becomes very, as you say, excluding. I think there’s a case. I would have a look at it.
I think the way RE is taught, in the world we live in, needs to be incredibly carefully.
What should be done about ‘gay cure’ reparative therapy in the UK?
Ban it. Absolutely, unequivocally, I would say it has no place at all. What reason could there be for that? Geraint Davies had a bill on that, I supported his bill. I’d support another one.
At the moment, all young girls are vaccinated against HPV, but men aren’t. Particularly gay men are at risk for oral or anal cancer. What do you think of proposals to extend it?
It seems to me that there’s a case for extending it, a strong one. I think, with any of these decisions, you do have to be guided by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
You have to balance it there is an, of course, equality consideration, but, always, as well, there is a resource consideration.
We recently spoke to Lib Dem leadership candidate Norman Lamb, who was saying there needs to be some source of effort by the BBC to include greater LGBT representation in children’s programs. As a former Culture Secretary, what’s your view on that, as a way of normalizing same-sex couples, same-sex parents, trans children and so on?
I think he’s right. And I think it goes past the point I was making about schools. It’s the same thing, isn’t it?
The way my son would describe it is that, at school, people wouldn’t generally throw about racist views, but the extent of which gay is used in a derogatory fashion, it’s terrifying, actually.
I kind of feel, this is a massive issue actually that we haven’t faced up to it properly.
I think, maybe, more coverage of what teenagers and young gay men and women go through.
Until you actually hear a story, in terms of what it does to people, the kind of absolute trauma it causes people… I think there needs to be much more media coverage.
An area that I want to do more work on is sport as well. I think sport has dragged its feet far too much.
I mean, sport is a vehicle for changing public opinion, famously on race, back in the ’80s. Recently, I think you can look at some brilliant, pioneering work on mental health in cricket and rugby league, which I know well.
To be honest, I think football has got a pretty lamentable record in this area and that’s somewhere where I can have an influence because of my contact in sports.
Norman’s on to a really important point, but I would say, in sport as well. I will challenge the football authorities to get much more serious about how to tackle LGBT discrimination.
Ed Miliband appointed Lord Michael Cashman as his LGB envoy. . . Would you consider keeping him on?
Absolutely, of course, of course.
Back on sport, that role becomes very relevant in respect to the 2018 Russia World Cup.
I’ve said for other reasons, for FIFA reasons, for aggression reasons in respect of Ukraine, I don’t believe the World Cup should be taking place there.
But if it is to go ahead, once all the kind of stuff has been looked into, then we shouldn’t go. If we’re going, a stand needs to be taken over the oppression.
I think the need for an envoy with that issue coming quickly is massively important. If we’re going to go there, we need to go there and not waste the opportunity, we must go there and make these points.
Do you think you’re going to get the support of LGBT Labour voters? In the last leadership election, when we polled our Labour readers, they were voting for Ed Miliband. Do you think you can actually get their support?
One thing I haven’t mentioned – I’m coming to Pride on Saturday!
I want their support. One of the reasons I’m coming to you today is because of some of the unfair things that I think people have said about me. I don’t think people know the real me, really. I think people have put up a false kind of version about me.
I did call for equal marriage when no one else was, when other candidates weren’t advocating it. Surely there should be some value, some recognition there in terms of leading that debate through the last Labor leadership contest?
I worked for Chris Smith years ago, I think Chris is publicly supporting me. That endorsement means a lot to me. Yes, I want people’s support!
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I want people’s support very much and there are new frontiers to be fought and I’m ready to do that and be a leader that people can have real trust in.
In terms of Labour’s pioneers… Jeremy Corbyn has been advocating LGBT rights in Parliament since before I was born!
Yes – fair play to Jeremy, that’s absolutely true!
Do you agree, that it’s right, that Jeremy is in the contest?
I’d say it’s the decision of the PLP, isn’t it? It’s not for me to say who should and shouldn’t be in. There’s a need for an open debate, absolutely.
Jeremy’s somebody I’ve got massive time and respect for and he’s got important things to say. So, it’s good!