On 4 May, some of Britain’s biggest conurbations will elect their first metro mayors. These dynamic new figures will be endowed with transport and planning powers of the sort that’ll allow them to regenerate their cities, rebalance the economy and generally make everything brilliant again.
At least, that’s the theory. And to be fair, it’s largely worked in London, and anything which means reducing the ludicrous over-centralisation of English politics must be considered a Good thing, in our book.
Anyway, it’s now less than three months til election day, so, all in all, it’s about time we started looking at the candidates. And, since it was the first city to get a deal, where better to start than Greater Manchester?
The 10 boroughs which make up the combined authority, and their predecessors. Image: Wikipedia.
The favourite has got to be Labour’s Andy Burnham. He’s the only “name” politician in the running, and the party holds nine of the region’s 10 councils, and 22 of its 28 parliamentary constituencies. If he doesn’t win it’ll be a pretty big upset.
That said, I don’t think we can entirely rule it out: Burnham was the favourite for the 2015 Labour leadership election, too, and look what happened then. He’s also a Scouser by birth, rather than a Mancunian, and after attending Cambridge has spent his career in the Westminster bubble, working for various unions and NHS bodies before being elected as a Greater Manchester MP in 2001. As a result, his “good working class northern lad who likes football” shtick never quite rings true.
It’s also quite difficult to work out what he’d do with the job. He’s yet to publish a manifesto, and his record shows a certain ideological flexibility, shall we say. (Key example: as shadow health secretary he was strongly opposed to NHS privatisation, despite being the only health secretary ever to privatise a hospital.)
What’s more, his public pronouncements on the various issues are all pretty vague. He wants more trams, more cycling, and less road congestion… well yes, don’t we all? He’s also criticised the regional planning framework for its plans to release 3 per cent the local green belt for homes – although, to his credit, he’s not ruled out using some green belt, so long as it’s given over to council housing, rather than executive mansions.
All in all, mayoralty is likely to be a mildly populist, largely pragmatic sort of affair, concerned with banging the drum for the north as much as with solving Manchester-specific problems. Ideological flexibility can be quite useful in a mayor (hi, Sadiq): the question is whether Burnham’s more populist instincts will stop him from making the sort of tough decisions the region needs to progress.
The city region today. Image: Google.
Burnham is not only the best known politician running for the job – he’s really the only known politician running for it. Despite speculation that he’d stand as an independent, Jim O’Neill, the economist and former Treasury minister who came up with the whole Northern Powerhouse concept, doesn’t fancy the job. And despite my urging, the architect of the post, former chancellor George Osborne, declined to stand either (because, one presumes, he knew that he’d lose).
So the Conservative candidate will be whizzkid Sean Anstee who, in 2014, became leader of Trafford Council aged just 26, making him both the youngest council leader in Britain, and one of the most senior Tories in Greater Manchester. (As an aside, Anstee has also been in a civil partnership with his partner Thom, a teacher, since 2010, when he was just 22: clearly a man who believes in doing things early.)
Anstee hasn’t published a manifesto yet either – it’s possible I’m jumping the gun by writing this in February, to be honest – but his campaigning so far has focused largely on closing the skills gap, and improving links between education and employers. As part of this, he’s talked about using the mayoralty to create a “Greater Manchester Gap Year” – a sort of combination of work experience and volunteering, for local 18 year olds.
The LibDem candidate is another Trafford councillor, Jane Brophy who, unusually for this race, has already got her website up and running. The “about” page contains this:
So there you go.
Brophy is the only woman in the race at the moment, and like LibDems the UK-over is campaigning on a pro-European line. Of the 10 most recent press statements on her site, seven of them are about her opposition to Brexit. (My favourite: “‘Congestion charge isn’t the top answer, the EU is,’ says Mayoral Candidate”.)
Her main policy is opposing the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, and her website has a whole section called “Save Our Greenbelt”. Obviously, she is not concerned about the all-important CityMetric endorsement.
Four other candidates have declared. Peter Clifford of the Communist League is apparently concerned about issues including “policing, tackling anti-Semitism and “declining” health care conditions”. Will Patterson, chair of the Wigan & Leigh Green Party, stepped in as the party’s candidate at the last minute after the untimely death of its previous candidate Deyika Nzeribe.
Then there’s Stephen Morris of the English Democrats, who has a particularly enjoyable website. He’s already promised to invite President Trump to visit Manchester if elected, and more intriguingly has warned that, “Future construction in Greater Manchester will have to include building downwards as well as upwards”. (It’s actually a surprisingly sensible policy to put car parks underneath buildings, like in that episode of Pigeon Street where they save the park.)
UKIP’s candidate is – perhaps unexpectedly – Shneur Odze, a 33 year old Orthodox Jew from Hackney. He must be considered an outsider, but is pushing the standard UKIP line the party’s stance on immigration means it’s the best challenger to Labour in the north. In a recent interview with our parent title the New Statesman he noted:
“All Andy Burnham’s been going on and on about for months and months is migration and Brexit, because he knows we’re the only people who can beat him. Of course Andy’s the favourite. But look at Donald Trump. Look at Brexit.”
One person who’s not running is the guy who is, effectively, the existing mayor. Tony Lloyd was a Manchester MP for nearly 30 years after 1983, and briefly served as a junior foreign minister in Tony Blair’s government, but left Parliament in 2012 when he was elected Greater Manchester’s first police & crime commissioner. That role is being subsumed into the new metro mayor job, and Lloyd’s term was extended until May 2017, to allow him to serve as the city’s interim mayor until fresh elections could be held.
None of which would be for particularly interesting, except for one thing. The election which carried Lloyd to power was carried out under the supplementary vote system. You know the one: if no one gets 50 per cent of the vote, all but the top two candidates are eliminated, and their votes are distributed by second preferences; whoever has most after that wins.
Except that wasn’t necessary: Lloyd won 51 per cent of the vote for Labour in the first round. His closest rival, the Tory Michael Winstanley, got only 16 per cent.
All of which suggests that this should be a walkover for Labour. This election really is Andy Burnham’s to lose.
Mind you: Andy Burnham, though.
If you’re involved in any of these campaigns, or any others that I may have missed, please do drop me a line.