Born in the Old Roan area of Aintree, Merseyside, on the border of Liverpool, Burnham was educated at local comprehensive schools and graduated with a degree in English from Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge. He worked as a researcher for Tessa Jowell from 1994 to 1997, then working for the NHS Confederation in 1997 and as an administrator for the Football Task Force in 1998. The same year, he became a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, a position he held until 2001.
After the retirement of Lawrence Cunliffe, the Labour MP for Leigh, Burnham was elected to succeed him in 2001. He was a member of the Health Select Committee from 2001 until 2003, then serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Home Secretary David Blunkett until 2004, when he became PPS to Education Secretary Ruth Kelly. He was promoted to serve in the Government after the 2005 election as a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Home Office. In 2006, Burnham was moved to become a Minister of State at the Department of Health.
When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, Burnham was promoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury, a position he held until 2008, when he became Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. In 2009, he was promoted again to become Secretary of State for Health. In that role, he opposed further privatisation of National Health Service services and launched an independent inquiry into the Stafford Hospital scandal. After the Labour Party's defeat in the 2010 general election, Burnham was a candidate in the 2010 Labour leadership election, coming fourth out of five candidates. The contest was won by Ed Miliband. Burnham served as Shadow Secretary of State for Health until late 2010, when he was moved by Miliband to become Shadow Secretary of State for Education. He held that role for a year, then returning to the role of Shadow Secretary of State for Health.
After the 2015 general election, in which Labour lost to the Conservative Party, Miliband resigned as leader. Burnham launched his campaign to succeed Miliband in the resulting September 2015 leadership election. He finished a distant second behind Jeremy Corbyn. Following the defeat, he accepted a role in Corbyn's Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Home Secretary. In May 2016 Burnham announced his candidacy to become Labour's candidate for the Greater Manchester Mayoralty and was selected in August 2016. He resigned as Shadow Home Secretary in October 2016.
The mayoral election was held in May 2017 and the declaration of the June 2017 general election during the local campaign led him to stand down as an MP.
Burnham was born in Old Roan in Aintree, Lancashire (now Merseyside), in 1970, the son of a telephone engineer father and receptionist mother. He was brought up in Culcheth, Warrington, Cheshire and educated at St Lewis Catholic Primary School, Culcheth and St Aelred's Roman Catholic High School, Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside. He studied English at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge. He is the honorary President of the Cambridge Universities Labour Club.
Burnham joined the Labour Party in 1984 when he was 14. From 1994 until the 1997 general election he was a researcher for Tessa Jowell. He joined the Transport and General Workers' Union in 1995. After the 1997 election, he was a parliamentary officer for the NHS Confederation from August to December 1997, before taking up the post as an administrator with the Football Task Force for a year.
In 1998, he became a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, a position he remained in until he was elected to the House of Commons in 2001.
After the retirement of Lawrence Cunliffe, Burnham applied to be the parliamentary candidate for the safe Labour seat of Leigh in Greater Manchester. Burnham secured selection to contest the seat at the next general election. At the 2001 election he was elected with a majority of 16,362, and gave his maiden speech in the House of Commons on 4 July 2001.
Following his election to Parliament, Burnham was a member of the Health Select Committee from 2001 until 2003, when he was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Home Secretary David Blunkett. After Blunkett's first resignation in 2004, he became PPS to Education Secretary Ruth Kelly.
Burnham was promoted to serve in the Government after the 2005 election as a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, with responsibility for implementing the Identity Cards Act 2006. In the government reshuffle of 5 May 2006, he was moved from the Home Office and promoted to Minister of State at the Department of Health. In Gordon Brown's first cabinet, announced on 28 June 2007, Burnham was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury, a position he held until 2008. During his time at the Treasury, he helped author the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review.
In a re-shuffle in January 2008, Burnham was promoted to the position of Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, replacing James Purnell. In June 2008, he apologised to the director of pressure group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, after she threatened to sue him for libel for smearing her reputation.
In late 2008, Burnham announced government plans to tighten controls on internet content in order to "even up" what he claimed was an imbalance with TV regulations. The announcement was followed by a speech to the music industry's lobbying group, UK Music, in which he announced "a time that calls for partnership between Government and the music business as a whole: one with rewards for both of us; one with rewards for society as a whole. (...) My job – Government's job – is to preserve the value in the system."
In April 2009 after being heckled at the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster Burnham used the next day's cabinet meeting in Downing Street to ask then Prime Minister Gordon Brown if he could raise the issue of Hillsborough in Parliament. Brown agreed despite it not being on the agenda or on the government's radar. The eventual result was the second Hillsborough inquiry. In 2014 when Burnham spoke at the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster he was cheered and applauded by the crowd.
Burnham was again promoted becoming Secretary of State for Health in June 2009. He held the post until the Labour government resigned after the 2010 general election.
In July 2009, a month after he became Health Secretary, Burnham launched an independent inquiry chaired by the QC Robert Francis into unusually high mortality rates at Stafford Hospital. The inquiry found systematic failures at the hospital, and was critical of care provided by the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. A wider public inquiry, again led by Robert Francis, was launched in 2010 by his successor as Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley. It found serious failings at the hospital but concluded it would be "misleading" to link those failings to a particular number of deaths. After leaving office, reports claimed that Burnham and his predecessor as Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, had rejected 81 requests for an inquiry sitting in public to examine the high rate of deaths at Stafford hospital. According to The Daily Telegraph, after initial concerns were raised about links between mortality rates and standards of care in 2005, there were up to 2800 more deaths than expected across 14 NHS trusts highlighted as having unusually high death rates. These figures for deaths were however discredited. A report, the Keogh Review, following an investigation into the 14 NHS trusts by Bruce Keogh, described the use of such statistical measures as "clinically meaningless and academically reckless".
Burnham was criticised during the 2010 election campaign after leaflets were sent to 250,000 women – some of whom turned out to be cancer patients – featuring a message from a breast cancer survivor who praised Labour's health policy. Burnham denied that specific cancer patients had been targeted.
Burnham became Shadow Secretary of State for Health after May 2010 following the defeat of Gordon Brown's government. Following Brown's resignation as Leader of the Labour Party, Burnham declared his intention to stand in the subsequent leadership contest. He launched his leadership campaign in his Leigh constituency on 26 May. Burnham led on his philosophy of 'aspirational socialism', aligning himself with Intern Aware's campaign to end unpaid internships. He made key policy commitments to the creation of a National Care Service and called for inheritance tax to be replaced with a land value tax. Burnham finished fourth, eliminated on the second ballot with 10.41% of the vote. The leadership contest was won by Ed Miliband.
At the end of September 2010, Burnham criticised Prime Minister David Cameron for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government's public spending cuts and health reforms to the NHS.
In October 2010, Burnham was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Education and election co-ordinator for the Labour Party. As Shadow Education Secretary, Burnham opposed the coalition government's plans for "free schools". He argued for moving the education system back towards a comprehensive system.
One day short of a year later, he was appointed again to his former role of Shadow Secretary of State for Health, and held the role until 2015.
In July 2013 The Daily Telegraph reported that Burnham's staff had edited his Wikipedia page to remove criticisms of his handling of the Stafford Hospital scandal. Burnham's office claimed they had removed false statements that had been drawn to their attention.
On 13 May 2015, Burnham announced that he would stand to replace Ed Miliband in the 2015 leadership election. He stressed the need to unite the party and country and "rediscover the beating heart of Labour."
Burnham attracted press criticism for claiming £17,000 a year from the taxpayer to rent a London flat, despite owning another within walking distance of the House of Commons. A spokesperson for Burnham said that renting out the original flat was necessary to "cover his costs" as parliamentary rule changes meant he was no longer able to claim for mortgage interest expenses.
Burnham was criticised for jokingly saying that Labour should have a woman leader "when the time is right", with the New Statesman saying that he had "tripped over his mouth again". He also said that he would resign from the Shadow Cabinet if Labour supported leaving NATO, something which Jeremy Corbyn had talked about.
Burnham came second (out of four) to Jeremy Corbyn in the election, gaining 19% of the vote in the first round, compared to 59% for Corbyn.
On 13 September 2015, Burnham accepted an appointment as Shadow Home Secretary in the first Shadow Cabinet of Jeremy Corbyn and remained in the role after the 2016 reshuffle.
On 27 April 2016, the day after the Hillsborough inquest verdict that found the 96 Hillsborough deaths had occurred as a result of unlawful killing, Burnham made a powerful speech to the House of Commons calling for those responsible to be held to account. Condemning South Yorkshire Police, which had instigated a cover-up in the aftermath of the tragedy, he described the force as being "rotten to the core" while suggesting that the cover-up had been "advanced in the committee rooms of this House and in the press rooms of 10 Downing Street...What kind of country leaves people, who did no more than wave off their loved-ones to a football match, sitting in a courtroom, 27 years later, begging for the reputation of their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and fathers? The answer is one that needs to do some deep soul-searching". The eleven minute statement drew applause from MPs, a response that is generally against convention at Westminster.
On 25 April 2017 as his Final Act of Parliament, he delivered an adjournment debate that lasted over an hour on the Contaminated Blood Scandal. Mr Burnham used the debate to present a raft of evidence stating "this scandal amounts to a criminal cover-up on an industrial scale" and that "These are criminal acts". He said that if the Government did not set up an Investigation into the scandal that he would refer his evidence to the Police.
On 5 May 2016, a spokesperson for Burnham confirmed that he had been approached by party officials in Greater Manchester, asking him to consider resigning from the Shadow Cabinet of Jeremy Corbyn in order to run in the upcoming mayoral election in 2017. It was also stated that, "it is early days and no decision has been taken," but that one would be made in coming weeks. It was speculated by some in the press that a decision to resign from Jeremy Corbyn's team could coincide with a poor performance by Labour in the local elections held on the same day.
On 18 May 2016, he confirmed that he was running for Mayor. Burnham was selected as the Labour candidate in August 2016. In September 2016, Burnham said that he would resign as Shadow Home Secretary once a replacement had been found, in order to concentrate on his mayoral bid. He was succeeded by Diane Abbott in October. Burnham said, if elected as Manchester mayor, he would resign his seat as the member of parliament for Leigh. However, the 2017 general election was declared a fortnight before the mayoral election; Burnham did not stand as a candidate.
Burnham was elected to the new role of Mayor of Greater Manchester on 5 May 2017. He received 63% of the vote, winning majorities in all ten Greater Manchester Boroughs. In his mayoral victory speech he stated, "[Politics] has been too London-centric for too long … Greater Manchester is going to take control. We are going to change politics and make it work better for people."
The issue of homelessness in Greater Manchester was a major focus of Burnham's mayoral campaign. He pledged to donate 15% of his mayoral salary to charities tackling homelessness if elected. After his election he outlined his plan to launch a "homelessness fund", with money going to homeless charities and mental health and rehabilitation services.
Burnham responded to the Manchester Arena bombing on 23 May 2017, calling it an "evil act", while praising the "best immediate response" of local people, and thanking the emergency services. He later announced a vigil to be held in Manchester's Albert Square the following evening.
Burnham has said that he joined the Labour Party at the age of 14 after having been "radicalised" by the miners' strike of 1984–85. Ideologically, he identifies as a Socialist. In his 2010 leadership bid Burnham emphasised his philosophy of 'aspirational socialism', which he described as redistributive, collectivist and internationalist. He is a strong opponent of nationalism (as promoted by the Scottish National Party) and referred to it as an "ugly brand of politics".
Burnham is a feminist; he also supports the use of all-women shortlists for parliamentary candidate selections. He is a supporter of LGBT rights and voted in favour of same-sex marriage in 2013. In an interview in The Daily Telegraph in October 2007, Burnham said: "I think it's better when children are in a home where their parents are married" and "it's not wrong that the tax system should recognise commitment and marriage", creating controversy because his views replicated the policies of the Conservative Party.
In his 2015 leadership bid, Burnham pledged to commit Labour to "a policy of progressive renationalisation of the railway system". Burnham also favours a universal graduate tax to replace student tuition fees, and voted against the most recent increase in fees. He has advocated a 'National Care Service', integrating care services into the National Health Service Burnham's key economic policies in his leadership bid included a new levy to fund social care, extending the higher minimum wage to all ages (it currently only applies to those over 25), and banning zero-hour contracts. Burnham described the mansion tax proposed by Ed Miliband as "the politics of envy", saying he knew it would lose votes when his mother phoned and told him it represented a return to the 1970s.
Burnham is a strong supporter of devolving power from Westminster. In his 2015 leadership campaign he criticised the "Westminster Bubble"— the London-centric focus in British politics and perceived detachment from life outside of Westminster. However, some opponents and political commentators accused him of being a part of the same Bubble that he criticises. He views devolution of powers to Greater Manchester (including an elected mayor) as an opportunity for urban regeneration. He also called for a focus on Northern identity. After he was elected as Mayor of Greater Manchester, he described the new powers for northern cities as "the dawn of a new era".
Burnham has a brother, Nick, who is the principal of Cardinal Newman College, one of the top performing colleges within the UK. Burnham married Marie-France van Heel, who is Dutch, in 2000, having been in a relationship since university. The couple have a son and two daughters. Burnham was raised as a Roman Catholic. In the 2015 leadership contest he praised Pope Francis, but urged the Pontiff to promote a progressive stance on gay rights. In a newspaper interview during the contest he stated that he had been repeatedly at odds with the Catholic Church all the time that he had been an MP and that this had resulted in strained personal relationships.
Burnham was the honorary chairman of Leigh Rugby League Club for a short time. Burnham was a talented junior cricketer (playing for Lancashire CCC Juniors) and keen footballer, and competed at both sports for his college. He has played for Labour's "Demon Eyes" football team and is a lifelong fan of Premier League football club Everton. In July 2003, Burnham played for Conference club Leigh RMI in a pre-season friendly against Everton. He came on as an 88th minute substitute for Neil Robinson in the 1–1 draw at Hilton Park.