Brunel Questions….Andy Burnham

Every month, I and Alex Mitchell will be sitting down with famous political figures and putting our questions to them. In this edition, we talk to the Shadow Secretary of State for Education and MP for Leigh, Andy Burnham

“To me, Hillsborough was the end of the era where the authorities could stitch everything up and shaft the punters”

Standard statement from a football terrace, no? Or a bookies? Or even just a pub. Instead it is Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Andy Burnham. Today LeNURB is allowed a wee backstage pass at Westminster, as the government race around putting out fires (metaphorically and physically) in the run up to the vote on the tuition fee rise. However, while we grill him on the state of Higher Education in the UK, he also has time to give Thatcher a kick and blame those at the top in the eighties for the strife he and his fellow Northerners endured.

A simple day has long since started by the time we arrived in Portcullis House, the real seat of Government. It is said that more bills are hammered out and deals cut here than in its sand-coloured neighbour over the road. Having been plied with enough coffee to keep the average man awake for many a moon, we are finally shown through to meet Andy.

Despite claims that he only aspires to leave his consistency of Leigh as a Labour saf

Andy Burham being quizzed on the Health Service

e-seat, the 41-year-old recently made a grab for the top spot during the recent Labour leadership contest following Gordon Brown’s resignation. After a 5 month race in which The Other Miliband won, Andy emerged 4thbehind Ed, Dave and Ed Balls. When pressed on what he learned from the experience and what the journey felt like he is remarkably stoic.

“It was up and down and I had to dig deeper than I’d ever done before…but I don’t regret it at all. For me as a politician it was an incredibly empowering experience, because I spoke for myself, I spoke for nobody else and I connected with some people. I obviously didn’t connect with enough though!”

Over the years, Andy has made a slow march from the backbenches of obscurity, working with David Blunkett, Ruth Kelly and Tessa Jowell until he hit the big time in 2008, when he was appointed Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. While in this role he advocated more control over online video content and warnings. He also attended the 20th Anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster and pressed Gordon Brown to establish the Hillsborough Independent Panel to disclose documents on the tragedy, which he holds out as the moment he is most proud of in his life. “As someone from Liverpool, I knew how raw that was going to be, going to that event, that sense of injustice”. His body language has shifted, his tone

flatter. It is clear that he also feels this injustice. Though he comes from the blue half of the Merseyside, he is clearly rooted to his fellow Liverpudlians, “I was at the other semi-final, but had many friends at the game. Obviously there were the 96 who, tragically, lost everything, but there were so many other people who were deeply scarred and the collective damage it did to the community was just massive” Then he makes the statement at the head of the article. A glance to his staff, they seem to have ignored it. It is true when Andy Burnham says he speaks for himself, he speaks for himself. You couldn’t imagine anyone in the Cameron’s cabinet accusing the police and the government of ‘shafting the punters’ in during the eighties unrest….not that they were aware of it. He continues “I felt the authorities didn’t want to give any credence to anything the football supporters were saying, and it was an era when they could almost get away with it”

Right. It’s clear we should move on. Time to talk about an area of obvious passion for our constituents, the students. When the talk moved the recent marches and looming vote, Andy’s manner returns to its previously buoyant nature. As the Shadow Education Secretary, universities don’t strictly fall under his remit (they belong to the Dept. of Business, Innovation and Skills – currently helmed in the Coalition by Vince Cable) but he speaks with honesty and drive, as a man who is well aware of the human cost of the bill.

“The most corrosive thing about the Browne Report and the Government’s response to it is I can imagine in living rooms across the Northwest on the day the news reported the bill, dads saying to their children ‘Forget about university, it’s out of the reach of the likes of us now’” When pressed further on the Coalition’s plans he lashes out against them, ‘I think the catastrophic error of judgement [they] have made is to take a huge leap towards a fully private education system, where the onus of paying for the education is fully on the back of the individual. Now for the Liberal Democrats, that a complete about-turn from where they were arguing for a fully-funded university system”.

But does Andy concede that while the Lib Dems promised the moon and provided the slurry, Labour promised nothing and said nothing? Surely as the man who aimed to lead his party in opposition he could explain the deafening silence over the tuition fees and the Browne review, which his party ordered? “Yeah, when we look back at that maybe we should have been clearer about that. And perhaps been clearer about the ‘big-picture’ options, like Graduate Tax which gained currency in the Leadership campaign”.

So the Lib Dems were wrong to promote a fully-funded university system and the Coalition is wrong to push through the bill to raise the fees cap to £9k. Where would Labour place the impetus? On the student? On the state? “For me, it’s got to be a partnership. So university benefits both the individual who goes and society in whole. So society should contribute! While Labour had their own difficulties on the this issue, we came to the right position: That funding of higher education in the UK should be a partnership between the individual and the state; in fact, it should be more a 50% partnership. Then the repayment system needs to be as progressive as possible to enable people from all backgrounds to take advantage of university. For me Labour should stay on that ground: a partnership. Obiously fees would have to rise to meet the 50:50 split in the funding”.

TheOnlyMoxey interviews Shadow School’s Sec. Andy Burnham

And the while the figures of the tuition fees are in much debate, it hasn’t escaped the attention of many in Whitehall that during the debate, larger issues are seemingly swept under the PR carpet and by and large ignored.

“What is utterly wrong about what is proposed is the 80% cut in the Teaching Grant which is essentially just removing the state from the sponsorship of the Humanities, of Arts courses and that is profoundly wrong”. And it appears the leader agrees, Ed Miliband calling it ‘cultural vandalism’. And the bill not only brings about a lobotomy of the teaching budget for universities, but also the cancelling of the Education Maintenance Allowance scheme.

“While it is right to raise the thought that university is for everybody, you do have to clearer about the different approaches to learning…The scrapping of EMA is as pernicious to the life-chances of any young people in this country as are the rise in fees. Maybe Labour are at fault for not singing the praises of EMA, our commitment to it and we have to learn from that”

And with that (and a few final quick-fire questions) the interview is over. We thanked Andy for his time and were transported via a secret door back to Westminster underground station, back to the real world. The world that feels the effects of what the man and women above us do, like ultimately-complicated puppets, or some sort of bizarre ‘Sims’-esque game. The decisions made on the 9th of December may not directly affect those who marched over the course of November, during the ‘DEMO 2010’ campaign, but it will effect the millions of young people sitting A-levels this summer, it will effect the teenagers sitting GCSEs with aspirations of being doctors or scientists or authors or even politicians. It may even effect those yet to go to school, yet to form an aspiration or yet to be born

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