First published by The i Paper, 5th May 2017
In Manchester today the mood is one of quiet satisfaction. Andy Burnham has achieved a stunning Labour victory for Greater Manchester with a turnout which, although still low, was far higher than expected. The people I speak to, too, are optimistic: no one I spoke to at work throughout the day was in much doubt that Burnham would emerge victorious.
Manchester is a traditionally Labour heartland. Tories are not welcome here, as they found out in 2015 when thousands of people, including myself, staged a remarkably well-behaved (with the exception of the lone egg-thrower) protest outside the Midland Hotel.
Manchester is home to a straight-talking class of people. We’re not keen on political buzzwords. The phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’ tends to be met with the raise of an eyebrow or a throaty scoff. If you live in Greater Manchester, you know you’re part of one of the most vibrant, diverse, sleepless cities in the Britain. You don’t need some Tory spin-person slapping a cute label on it.
However, there seems to be recognition that the position of a directly elected Mayor (under Supplementary Voting, no less – did I hear someone say “electoral reform”?) is more than a PR gesture. Devolutionary measures are rolling out across the country and power is being handed down on a local level, with seven combined authorities getting brand new ‘metro mayors’, including Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Liverpool City, Sheffield City, Tees Valley, West Midlands, and the West of England – where Tory Tim Bowles was elected earlier today.
Burnham will now take over the role of Police and Crime Commissioner for the region and be responsible for spending £1bn of Manchester’s public finances. He will gain control of a new housing investment fund worth £300m, greater planning powers, local transport initiatives, a £100m programme helping people get back into work, £30m a year generated by Manchester’s economic growth, and control of existing health and social care budgets. This is not small potatoes.
In theory, Burnham will have more power than the Mayor of London, and a Labour victory has clearly bucked the national trend towards dour, austerity-peddling Toryism. Perhaps Burnham’s win is a foreshadowing of things to come, with a closer general election result on the cards than Theresa May anticipates.
Burham stood on a platform that put young people first, proposing a new application system for apprenticeships and half-price travel on buses and the Metrolink for 16-18 year olds. With a commitment to green travel solutions, affordable home-building and job creation, he’s targeting the areas that ordinary Manchester people feel strongly about. Greater Manchester, like many, many other regions in the UK, has suffered under Tory cuts to education, the police force and the NHS.
A spike in homelessness and rough sleeping have been recorded under the Conservative Party’s ideological drive towards austerity, and the banning of so-called legal highs have caused a disturbing epidemic of ‘Spice’ use, making busy areas in the city centre feel unsafe even during daylight hours. Burnham has pledged to end rough sleeping by 2020.
At the GM Citizens Mayoral Assembly, Andy Burnham was the candidate with ‘star power’, unlike the dithering Lib Dem Jane Brophy, the Conservative Sean Anstee, and the deeply unpopular Shneur Odze, bizarrely standing for UKIP.
Burnham’s charisma made the other contenders look washed out by comparison, was often the first to answer questions and respond with clarity at hustings events. The exposure from his unsuccessful Labour leadership bid in 2015 doesn’t seem to have hurt in terms of name recognition and his work with Manchester charities, including his involvement with Human Appeal’s Wrap Up Manchester initiative, has legitimised him as unafraid to get involved on a grassroots level.
The election of a metro mayor might be the best thing former-chancellor George Osborne could’ve done for Manchester. The ‘Devo Manc’ initiative might’ve been a transparent and unsuccessful Tory attempt to woo Manchester voters, but the result suggests that there is little support for a failed austerity agenda in Greater Manchester. The metro mayors project is an exciting opportunity for the UK’s second city to take control of its own destiny. Even as a region of massive diversity, Greater Manchester has spoken with one voice.
We are engaged. We are ready.