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Tougher than he appears; Andy Burnham tells Ian Hernon that politics is lacking leaders people can relate to.

ANDY Burnham did not exactly brand his Labour leadership rivals "southern softies" ...but close enough.

The Liverpool-born and Cheshire-raised former Cabinet minister, in the first of our series on the five Labour leader contenders, condemns the "metropolitan-centric" elite which has dominated New Labour for far too long.

And he stresses that he is the only northern candidate battling to fill the vacancy left by election-loser Gordon Brown.

"Under both Tony Blair and Gordon I was a loyal minister, but now I can speak my mind," he says.

"I am fighting for a different kind of Labour party, one that is in touch with the needs, hopes and aspirations of ordinary people in Merseyside and in the north west generally. Those are the people I want to re-connect with. For too long, as the election showed, we have been dangerously disconnected from families.

"I am tired of the top-down, London-centric way in which things have been run in recent years, and I'm afraid that my rivals will not do much to change that.

"They are part of the metropolitan Establishment.

"Unlike them I do not have the support of the London-based media or the New Labour Establishment, and I am happy about that."

Voting for the new Labour leader is underway now until September 22, with the winner announced on the first day of the Labour party conference.

Andy reckons, and the polls agree, that he is in third place behind David and Ed Miliband and ahead of Ed Balls and Diane Abbott.

But he hopes that the less-than-brotherly feud between the Milibands will allow him to come through the middle.

To that end he is hammering his northern credentials, his lack of a posh or privileged background, and his appeal to trade unionists.

A key plank in his manifesto is his determination to help northern working-class youngsters break through the elitist barriers to further education and opportunity, and into the professional class.

"There is still a world of privilege out there with the law, medicine and politics out of reach for too many young people whose parents are in no position to help."

His pledges include compulsory advertising of work experience, often a route to work for those with family connections, and a minimum wage for such youngsters to end exploitation.

"Despite all the advances we have made, it is still harder than ever for a Liverpool teenager from a disadvantaged estate to break down the barriers," he says.

Many under-estimate him because of his youthful looks and his all-to-apparent courtesy.

But he is no lightweight, having held three Cabinet posts, and he is a lot tougher than he looks.

"I believe that we need to rebuild the party from the bottom up, not the top down," he says.

"We need to be an effective opposition in the face of the coalition's attack on the poor, the vulnerable and decent, hard-working families.

"We need to challenge their onslaught against public services which will impact most heavily on city-regions like Merseyside."

The fanatical Evertonian believes that New Labour can be proud of its achievements in the Liverpool city-region.

"Personally, the thing I am proudest of being part of, when Culture Secretary, was Liverpool's Capital of Culture year.

"Labour recommended it and it was a huge success, and continues to be so.

"It restored a sense of pride and confidence in the city I love the most."

He is also proud of the backdoor role he played in winning the early release of the Hillsborough files despite the barracking he suffered at Anfield on the 20th anniversary of the disaster.

And for his authorisation, in the last months of his stint as health secretary, of the Royal Liverpool hospital rebuild.

That programme was threatened by coalition cuts and, although it was reprieved, he warns: "We must be vigilant because the coalition has shown that vital public services - health, hospitals, schools - will not be safe in their hands.

"Under David Cameron's Big Society, it is areas like ours which will suffer the most and be hit hardest by destructive cuts.

"And at first, but no longer, I found it hard to believe that the Liberal Democrats would be complicit in that.

"They are in a Cabinet of millionaires with no idea at all of the lives of ordinary people."

In another sideswipe at both the coalition and his rivals, he adds: "Politics is lacking leaders that people can relate to. I will change that."

If he becomes Leader, and then PM, what would be his first decision in No 10 to directly benefit Merseyside? He replies: "Transport links.

"I would give the go-ahead to the pounds 100m rail electrification between Liverpool and Manchester.

"Good communications are absolutely vital to Merseyside's regeneration and it is a disgrace that the programme has been stalled by the coalition's spending review."

And where would he celebrate his victory? "That's easy ...Goodison Park."

. Tomorrow: David Miliband . Born: January 7, 1970 in Aintree, the son of a telephone engineer father and a receptionist mother.

. Educated: St Lewis' primary and St Aelred;s RC high (now the technology college) in Newton-le-Willows. Party: Joined Labour aged 14 during the 1984 miners strike.. Work: Parliamentary NHS research officer.

. Seat: Leigh since June 2001 with a majority of 17,272.. Government posts: treasury chief secretary, culture, media and sport secretary, health secretary.

. Family: Married to Marie-France van Heel, who he wed in 2001 after 11 years together, with a son and two daughters.

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CONTENDER: Liverpool's Andy Burnham slams London bias of his rivals
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Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 31, 2010
Words:922
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