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Why Andy Burnham’s Manchester could change the face of UK politics

Why Andy Burnham’s Manchester could change the face of UK politics

So, with the result of the Greater Manchester metro mayor election declared, Andy Burnham completes his move from opposition MP to local leader.

Burnham’s decision to stand for the new post was seen by many as a signal that for ambitious Labour politicians, the place of power may no longer be in Westminster but rather the combined authorities – with all the powers they carry.

In a similar vein, this election also saw MP Steve Rotheram – Jeremy Corbyn’s parliamentary private secretary and occupant of the ultra safe seat of Liverpool Walton – decide he would rather be Merseyside’s mayor.

Greater Manchester is one of six metro mayor positions elected in the recent poll. And while each role has a slightly different combination of powers, it’s argued that the Manchester role is the most significant.

Here, those drawing up the combined authority remit – which looks to cover Greater Manchester as a whole – have included policing and health along with the more expected responsibilities, such as transport. And in the run up to the election, lobbyists and think tanks have been quick to see the potential, and the need to build alliances.

A victory for Labour?

While it will take some time before citizens in Greater Manchester, and the rest of the country, get an idea of just how much of a difference this new mayoral figure will make, the implications of the recent vote for political parties and for democracy can be examined straight away.

Labour will of course point to this result as a sign of success. When Sadiq Khan won the London contest, much was made by Labour of the victory here. But it will be harder for Corbyn and others to make as much of Greater Manchester.

This is mainly down to the fact that in London there was a contest – or at least the perception of a contest – between Khan and Zac Goldsmith. Whereas in Manchester, while it is true that other candidates have worked hard, no one was realistically expecting anything other than a Labour win. The combined authority is made up of ten local authority areas, nine of which are currently Labour led.

A victory for Labour too? Reuters

But beside the immediate spin, there is a bigger strategic point here. Because if Labour is smart, it could use its position in city regions – such as in Manchester – to build and maintain a reputation for running big things well.

This could mean that Manchester may well turn out to be of great use to the party as a way of demonstrating ability on a significant stage.

But of course that in itself will depend on making the rest of the country, and the nations voters, all realise that the stage is in fact significant.

Low turnout

But despite Bunham’s win, many of course will be concerned about poor turnout – which was 28.93% for Greater Manchester. For a big job with big responsibilities, this is a poor level of voting.

Andy Burnham with his daughters, after casting his vote in the Greater Manchester mayoral election. PA

Similarly low levels of voter turnout were previously seen when the regional police and crime commissioner roles were initially introduced. And it is true that it takes a while for people who are not political obsessives to get used to innovations like this.

Nevertheless, there will be work to be done to make people both aware of the metro mayor role, and convinced of its democratic legitimacy.

But low turnout figures and awareness aside, the role could clearly play a key role for Labour’s regional strategy. And given that Burnham recently said he is ready to leave Westminster and devote himself to Manchester, it may be that the the political watchers will need to start keeping an eye on the Irwell rather than the Thames.