It was en route between what might have been his eighth and ninth fringe appearances – even his aides had lost count – when Andy Burnham was lamenting the occasional snide mutters about his ubiquity at this year’s Labour conference.
“I saw some anonymous comments from shadow cabinet members, saying that what I do is a luxury, and that they do the hard work,” the Greater Manchester mayor told the Guardian in a brief sit-down between hotel function rooms.
“I was like, hang on a minute, I’m actually doing it. We don’t just deal with internal politics, we deal with the real world. We’re winning people back to Labour. I’m not having that.”
The former health secretary and MP for Leigh, out of Westminster since winning the mayoralty in 2017, has been one of the most visible presences at this week’s party get-together in Brighton, despite not being given a solo conference speech, one thing he does actively complain about.
Equally obvious has been the breadth of his policy suggestions. Burnham was speaking in a brief gap between addressing one event on social care and another on public transport. He has also weighed in on devolution, taxes, universal basic income and housing, alongside appearing on radio, TV and podcasts.
There have been inevitable grumblings about Burnham appearing to be on manoeuvres, and positioning himself as an insurgent heir to Keir Starmer, a “king of the north” who can leverage devolution to help Labour win back the red wall.
Despite his passing if clearly heartfelt complaint of being briefed about, Burnham seems to be greatly enjoying himself at the conference, and has been one of its obvious stars, with virtually all his events being packed to capacity.
“I’m bringing some energy into this debate, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he said, rejecting the charge that he should leave the policy ideas to shadow ministers. “No. I’m making policy in Greater Manchester that I’m actually implementing, so I have a policymaking role, it’s my job.”
All this is done, Burnham says, in the context of “absolute, unequivocal” support for Starmer, although perhaps tellingly he does refer to him twice as “the current leader”.
Nevertheless, he is unafraid to make suggestions, not least the idea that Labour needs more policy ideas.
“It’s very clear to me that these days, the public don’t want to hear just criticism or opposition, without answering the question: well, what would you do. And I honestly believe that Labour has to get better at answering that question,” he says.
“I’m just encouraging it. People should perhaps be less sensitive, I guess. The country is hurting after the pandemic, and people are waiting for hope, they’re looking to see who’s going to lift them. And we can’t wait forever, and say: ‘We’ll answer that at the election.’ We’ve got to give them a sense that there’s some good ideas coming through.”
The attitude towards all this within Starmer’s team could perhaps be described as affectionate tolerance. “Andy is in power, and it’s clearly not going to help if we try to squash him,” one source said. “Yes, some of what he’s doing could be seen as provocative, but he’s very much a net positive for the party.”
In private, some shadow ministers and their aides are more pugnacious, with one saying some of Burnham’s policy ideas are very like ones they had already been advocating. One says: “He’s not so much parked a tank on our lawn as got one of our tanks and borrowed the keys.”
Whatever the current limelight, Burnham is still not an MP, and was elected to a new four-year mayoral term only in May. As such, any perceived Westminster ambitions remain theoretical.
Burnham stresses that he is in no rush to come back to a political environment which, as he puts it, “almost slowly suffocates that sort of spirit”, arguing that a combination of the mayoralty, and campaigning on behalf of Hillsborough families, has left him politically revitalised.
He says: “I’m being honest and say I’m not going to rule out returning at some point, but I’m very much enjoying what I’m doing, and supporting the current leader, and hopefully bringing some positive energy back to Labour.”