Andy Burnham is expected by many to breeze through the Greater Manchester Mayoral election, and into the Mayor’s office at Churchgate House (across the road from Palace Theatre) on May the 4th.
All bar one of Greater Manchester’s councils are controlled by Labour. (Trafford Council is the exception, controlled by the Conservatives. Its leader, Sean Anstee, is the Conservative Mayoral candidate.) There are just five, out of a total twenty-seven Greater Manchester constituencies that Labour MPs do not represent. Before 2015, there were only three.
Going into the speed networking event with Andy Burnham, organised by the Greater Manchester branch of the Fabian Society, and held at UTC@MediaCityUK’s television studio in Salford, I felt unexcited over the prospect of a predictable election.
Over forty people sat in a room, separate from the studio, watching the event via a projection of the YouTube livestream.
Waiting, I introduced myself to Matt Mason, a University of Manchester Politics student. He was here taking notes on the event as a requirement of one of his modules; on political communication. But Matt was also a member of the Labour Party. I asked him what he thought of Andy Burnham. “He seems alright, but as charismatic politicians go, he’s not one of them.” He expected, he said, “a massive figure of the North of England.” He quoted IPPR North, the Northern thinktank he works for, to clarify: “A Nicola Sturgeon for the North of England”.
A relatively ordinary video opened the event. It explained how members of the audience, ‘networkers’, would be able to come and take the ‘hot seat’ and have two-and-a-half minutes to chat with Andy monitored by a countdown clock.
Microphones bumped. Awkward questions about CVs were asked. Laughs were forced. Especially when a ‘May the 4th be with you’ joke was made, out of the blue. A shelf sat behind Andy featuring Manchester memorabilia such as the album cover for the Smiths, for The Stone Roses’ Fools Gold single, and for New Order’s Substance.
Halfway through the evening, Matt leaned over to me: “He’s making some good points but I don’t think anyone is listening.” He seemed right. Perhaps the most exciting event of the evening was one of the ‘networkers’ getting the microphone caught on his foot. It certainly drew the biggest reaction from the audience.
The event only seemed to help Andy Burnham. Perhaps things will change as the campaign progresses, but ultimately, it seems that as long as he does not lose the momentum Labour has in the region, he should have the job as Mayor in the bag.
One ‘networker’ even opened a question with “once you do become Mayor…”, to which Burnham replied: “I like that you say ‘once you become Mayor’, because you think it’s a given… but I’m still… I’m not taking the election for granted, but I hope I do become Mayor.”
As the event progressed, it became clear that ‘devolution’ was the buzzword of the night. Andy Burnham wants “to use devolution to reinvent ourselves”.
When asked how to get rid of the London-centric view of the UK, he cited “devolution as the chance to change that”.
But Andy Burnham seems aware that devolution does not seem to be the word as much on everyone else’s lips as it is on his. “If we could click our fingers and make that happen, I’d be so happy, because I feel at the moment maybe people aren’t so sure about this whole thing […] and I don’t think people yet have embraced what it means and got involved.”
I started writing this feature and it became clear to me that, in the context of a perhaps predictable election, the news here was in the historical significance of the election itself, as a product of devolution.
In recent years, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) has been making strides forward for Greater Manchester. A ‘city deal’ was announced for Greater Manchester in 2012. It included a Revolving Infrastructure Fund, allowing the GMCA to earn back up to £30 million a year for spending on infrastructure projects; a Greater Manchester Investment Framework, letting the GMCA have increased independence over both Westminster and EU funding; and a Greater Manchester Housing Investment Board, permitting the GMCA to build new housing in the area (it currently has a £300 million budget).
This is where things get important. In 2014, George Osbourne, as then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, reached agreement with each of the leaders of the ten district councils to create the first county-wide elected Mayor outside of London. (Different to Liverpool’s city-wide elected Mayor.) The ten district council leaders will form the Mayor’s cabinet, whilst continuing to lead their own councils. To introduce any major changes, and prevent the wants and needs of Manchester being paramount, instead of Greater Manchester’s, the Mayor will need the support of two-thirds of his cabinet.
The power devolved to the Mayor of Greater Manchester via this deal is tremendous. The Mayor will be chair of the GMCA, (meaning he will lead the Revolving Infrastructure Fund, the Greater Manchester Investment Framework as well as the Greater Manchester Housing Board). He or she will be the Greater Manchester Police & Crime Commissioner, setting the policing budget and deciding priorities for Greater Manchester Police, as well as being responsible for the transport budget. These are just some of the powers devolved.
Andy Burnham therefore stands both in the midst and on the brink of that history, and he seems to understands that. He references the IRA bomb on Corporation Street in June 1996.
“It then kick started, I guess, a whole series of change in Manchester. The rebuilding of large parts of the city centre and, I think, though it was a terrible event and people were injured, in some ways it kind of was a turning point for the city. And then the Commonwealth Games came and that took us on a whole new level again And then Media City came, about five years after the Commonwealth Games. So really we never looked back and Greater Manchester really kind of built through that era.”
He also consistently references Manchester’s future throughout the evening. “In ten years’ time I want the rest of the country to look at Greater Manchester and say ‘you know what, they do things right there. They do things differently, but they do things better. And I want Greater Manchester to be a real beacon of social justice to the rest of the country.” He cites how he wants Greater Manchester to be “the best place to grow up, the best place to get on, the best place to grow old”. It seems he has plans to be Manchester’s very own turning point.
Andy Burnham was also quizzed on the national question. On Labour and having a continuing role on the national stage and in the politics of the Labour Party; “I do, but I wouldn’t put it about me really. I want Greater Manchester and the North to have a stronger voice on the national stage.” In the context of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland reaping the benefits of devolution, he describes how the North has been left “unsure where it fits in”. He believes he can make a success of devolution for Greater Manchester, and create a “more distinctive Northern brand of Labour”, allowing for the party to recover both “its position and its standing in the North”.
On how he thinks Manchester should respond if the rumours of Trump coming to Manchester were to be true, he said: “I think we should give him a traditional Manchester welcome, tell him straight what we think.”
Even on clubbing, within the context of Fabric being reopened and Sankey’s being closed, Andy Burnham was asked, “what would you do as Mayor to fight for Manchester’s proud and historic music culture, and broader reputation as the best place in England to be young?” Referencing his experience growing up in the 1980s, he describes the music as one of the few positives of the era: “This is another passion of mine [… but] I feel a bit of complacency has crept in to the Manchester music scene and we’ve got to challenge that.
“I’m a big believer in the life and soul of the city […] these venues need to be protected and I will protect them […] this will be a big agenda.”
Andy Burnham also spoke about his Mayoral influences. He cited Sadiq Khan in London, Bill de Blasio in New York, as well as Mayors in several Spanish cities as well as Singapore. “But we wanna do it our own way as well don’t we. We’re gunna be Greater Manchester and we’re gunna be unique and different and do it our way.”
However, although he claims to be putting young people at the heart of his campaign, (and testament to that, he is promising a free bus pass for 16-18 year olds, as well as the implementation of a UCAS-style system for apprenticeships), there does not seem to be much to appeal to undergraduate students.
I pressed him on the issue. “Well I’ve got to be careful about the commitments made,” he replies, much to my initial disappointment. But he thinks on his feet. He doesn’t dodge the question but goes on to decide to include (only paid) internships on that UCAS-style system. He also talks about helping people in their 20s and 30s on the housing ladder. He considers offering them an affordable Greater Manchester housing rent-to-own programme, thus encouraging them to stay in the region.
This attitude is evident in a policy he floats to me in regards to the NHS bursary, cut as of August 2017. He suggests that perhaps he could fund them if graduates were to spend at least five years working in the Greater Manchester NHS, or perhaps he could pay off 10% of their loan for every year they spend in the Greater Manchester NHS post-university.
Andy Burnham seems full of ideas and he encourages people to submit their ideas as he writes his manifesto. I wondered if perhaps he could work with the careers service in the implementation of that UCAS-style system. Could he do more for students going into privately rented accommodation?
Andy Burnham also seems keen on conversations with the universities. He talks of the benefits of “all the research coming out of the University of Manchester”.
As the evening came to a close, Andy Burnham said it had been “good to be tested in that way”. Tested? We will see if things get much harder as the campaign progresses.