This week we continue our local elections series, turning to Greater Manchester and the story of how the city’s Mayor transformed from a technocratic front bencher to become ‘King of the North.’
At risk of shamelessly disregarding the array of candidates standing, the only game in town when it comes to the upcoming Metro Mayoral election in Greater Manchester is the incumbent Andy Burnham. Such has been his pugnacious effectiveness in elevating the status of the Metro Mayor over the last four years, others are seeking to model their own campaigns on him this election cycle. West Midlands Labour candidate Liam Byrne has said of him “Andy is somebody who shows that you can work with government, but also put up a fight when you disagree with things.”
Since assuming office, Burnham has capitalised on the ‘north-south’ divide and his critique of the ‘London-centric’ political system that he claims has suppressed northern potential through underfunding and lack of resource for too long. He has eruditely used the pandemic as a means to entrench this narrative further, emphatically rejecting the Government’s plans to place his region under Tier 3 of coronavirus restrictions back in October, saying he could not accept the people of Greater Manchester being treated “as canaries in the coalmine for an experimental regional lockdown strategy.” As a result, his current approval ratings for handling of the Covid-19 pandemic are higher than other metro mayors across the UK including London, Liverpool and the West Midlands.
As such, other candidates haven’t had a look in. The Conservatives are fielding Laura Evans, who has argued that Manchester needs a Mayor who can work with the Government, rather than against it; whilst the Lib Dems have Simon Lepori, a former healthcare worker who for obvious reasons made health the focus of his campaign. Neither have gained traction.
Polling from think tank Centre for Cities has said 55 per cent of people want the Greater Manchester Mayor to focus on health care provision, with two thirds wanting more to be done to help schools and build more houses. Whilst other local polling has indicated that public priorities have shifted significantly during COVID-19, with people placing greater importance on business support, schools and adult education. As Burnham heads into a second term, he will have to move beyond the rhetoric to focus on these core issues to help drive the North West’s bounce back from the pandemic.
With a Burnham victory all but assured, he will surely be vindicated for the sense of alienation from the centre of political power in Westminster that he has propagated for the last four years – the same system that also rejected him for the Labour leadership twice before. But given his success to date up North, speculation of a return to the national stage as Labour leader one day will only increase. The question is whether he is truly as done with the politics of the Westminster elite as he claims to be.