Next year will see the election of England’s “metro mayors”, in Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, the North East, Sheffield City Region, Tees Valley, West Midlands, and the West of England. The role has been created by the Conservative Government and will see powers from Whitehall handed over to regional leaders – who will be accountable to voters as to how these powers are used.
The move will put one individual at the head of an area covering several local authority patches. But the mayoral powers that person will have, will differ from place to place. This is because each area has a different agreement with the Government concerning what the mayor will or won’t oversee.
Sound complicated? That’s because it is. Supporters of devolution, however, would argue that a one-size fits all arrangement wouldn’t work and that this is a positive step forwards for local politics.
Under the new system, each area will have a mayor who will be a significant local figure in the way that some council leaders, and some MPs, can only dream of. It is because of this power and significance that the candidacy for these roles has become a prize of some importance, encouraging former cabinet ministers and senior MPs – such as Andy Burnham and Ivan Lewis – to contest the party selections.
What has happened so far?
Currently, we have only seen Labour’s selections, voted for by party members. In the West Midlands, the party elected former Birmingham MP and current West Midlands MEP Sion Simon to stand. In Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham has been announced as Labour’s candidate, and in Merseyside – also known as the Liverpool City Region – Steve Rotheram will stand for election on the Labour ticket.
Of the three Labour party selections made this week, Liverpool City Region is perhaps the most significant, partly because the candidates represented different camps within the party and partly because of the region’s complex geography.
Liverpool City Region is in fact made up of six local authority areas, only one of which is Liverpool City. The other areas are Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens, and Wirral. All have their own very specific local concerns and fears about resources being “dragged to the centre”. This is also significant for other metro mayor areas, such as Sheffield – which also includes Doncaster and Barnsley, both areas with their own unique identity and issues.
In Liverpool, the selection process saw three main candidates vying for the role. Joe Anderson is already the elected mayor of the Liverpool City part of the area and chair of the Combined Authority. Luciana Berger is MP for Liverpool Wavertree and was Shadow Spokesperson on Mental Health until she resigned in protest against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. And Steve Rotheram is MP for Liverpool Walton and parliamentary private secretary to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Steve Rotheram was named the winner, with a 72% member turnout.
What does all of this mean?
What we can take home from the recent results is that Labour members are not always satisfied with those already in post. In both Manchester – where former MP Tony Lloyd was effectively acting as mayor – and Liverpool, voters have turned against someone who was effectively already doing the job. This of course could simply mean that post holders can make enemies through their decisions while challengers do not carry that baggage.
That said, party candidate selections are unusual elections. Candidates need to make themselves distinct from the other challengers but must also be careful not to criticise them too heavily. The need to be seen as loyal to the party pulls in the opposite direction to the need to seem different. This means candidates need to identify issues on which criticism can be made without seeming disloyal.
In Merseyside, where campaigners from other parties have highlighted threats to park land, Rotheram made good use of the whole “open space” issue. He managed to talk about his commitment to protect open space in a way that effectively criticised mayor Anderson’s record – or the appearance of Anderson’s record – while not implying disloyalty to the party.
What happens next?
All of this also arguably demonstrates members’ continuing support for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Of the candidates, Berger was one of those who resigned her post, while Anderson has generally been noncommittal. This is in sharp contrast to the victorious Rotheram, who is associated with Corbyn through his role as private secretary, alongside his appearance with Corbyn at a rally in Liverpool shortly before the close of ballot.
The Liverpool outcome may well have an effect on shortlisting and internal campaigning in those areas yet to select, such as Sheffield – particularly as the announcement of the Liverpool result provoked some comment on social media about gender balance. All Labour’s selections to date for this role – or for the earlier comparable London and Bristol roles – have been men. And of the three recent selections, only Liverpool even had a woman on the shortlist.
Of course as shortlists are drawn up individually, it is quite possible for Labour to end up with no female candidates at all. But given how bad this looks, I would imagine the senior players such as Harriet Harman will want to think about how to persuade more women to consider one of these roles role. A discussion for the forthcoming Labour women’s conference perhaps?