Labour leadership contender Andy Burnham has revealed that he used to write poetry – and that he wants to be a writer after he leaves politics.
The MP spoke of his love for literature after reading a short story by Charles Dickens at Soho House, a private members club in London.
Burnham, who studied English at Cambridge University, said his passion for poetry was inspired by a schoolteacher who encouraged him to read works by Philip Larkin and Tony Harrison.
He was asked by an audience member whether he ever wrote poetry himself. There was a pause before his wife, Marie-France van Heel, who was sitting at the front, said: "Don't embarrass him!"
To laughter, Burnham admitted: "A little. And do you know, one day I feel that when politics has run its course for me – as I'm sure it will at one point because I don't imagine it will be in my life forever, I'm not one of those politicians – I've been entertaining the idea that I might write at some point.
"Because the feeling I had at university, I never lost it. I don't want to write my political memoirs, though; what goes on in the dressing room stays there."
The event at Soho House was organised by Pin Drop, which presents authors and actors reading short stories aloud.
Burnham, who is odds-on to become Labour leader in September, told a select audience that William Shakespeare was the inspiration behind his big political speeches.
"There's a quote above the [Tony Harrison] poem 'V' by Arthur Scargill which really stuck with me when I was about 18, I've never forgotten it," he said. "Because I read it and I reread it: 'My father reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.'
"Just a simple thing, but it had a really big impact on me. It stuck with me – you could break out of things if you could get hold of words and put power into words. So I'm not making any great literary claims for my speeches but I do think my English background has helped.
"I really do try and get some power into my words, particularly my Labour party conference speeches, I've always given them a lot of thought. Not just to the words but to the cadence and the build-up. I put that down to a love of Shakespeare – I read every single Shakespeare play at college, I always see that as my absolute grounding in literature."
Voters are actually more interested in how you say things than what you actually say, Burnham suggested.
The MP for Leigh said he learned a lot when he first stood for the Labour leadership in 2010. "What I learned is that when people are watching you on television they're not actually listening and hanging on to every word," he said, "they're actually reading your emotions and your levels of animation and the sense of, 'Do they believe in what they're saying?'
"It came over me when Andrew Lansley [then health secretary] published a white paper on the NHS which in my opinion blew it apart. I just thought, 'Right I'm going to go for this' – and I did. And I remember the reaction changed after I really started talking more passionately about something I believed in."
Burnham was asked why so many politicians spoke in soundbites. "I think this is the problem with modern politics, I really do," he said. "I think it's been driven in this soundbite style for too long. I've been a minister and you're kind of drilled, 'This is the message, say this,' and I therefore did interviews as a minister where I was too wedded to the words I was given and wasn't encouraged just to speak."
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Ashton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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