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19 May 2016

Andy Burnham has found the radical centre – and it could win him Greater Manchester

Burnham's enthusiasm at his launch was uncharacteristic for a Thursday morning in Salford as he promised to not just be a Mayor for Greater Manchester, but to create a new "northern Labour".

By Ben Gartside

Today, Andy Burnham launched his campaign to become Greater Manchester mayor from the Lowry in Salford by setting out a positive, optimistic and innovative future not just for Manchester, but for the north as a whole. Shadow home secretary Burnham was introduced by Makerfield MP Yvonne Fovargue – making him the first candidate to have an endorsement of an MP in the contest to become Labour’s candidate.

Burnham seems to be fighting the selection on a line of radical centrism. He largely refused to be pinned down on specific areas of policy, but when he did they underscored his mantra of a “campaign for an equal England”. His enthusiasm for the area was evidenced by his child-like pride when he declared excitedly that one of the first examples of an NHS hospital was only streets away, before announcing his landmark policy of integrated Health and Social Care within the Greater Manchester Authority.

His speech encouraged other big beasts of the Labour party to involve themselves in devolved powers, warning that otherwise “it’ll be Scotland all over again”. Burnham equally had no qualms about taking up the problems of globalisation, saying “politics isn’t speaking to the North West” and that even the biggest allies of the Blair immigration plan could no longer claim it didn’t put additional pressure on public services.

Burnham also promised to create a “distinctive brand of Northern Labour”, which, from the sounds of his speech, would be a curious medley of Khanite measures on social inclusion mixed with a Bevanite approach to public services and a modernisers’ approach to business. He went on to suggest that there should be a mindset where people were “supported to succeed, but where success is shared”, seeming to channel the mantra of One Nation Labour under Miliband, whose slogan stated that “the next generation should be better off than the last”.

His energetic, flamboyant and driven delivery was not something that would typically be associated with a Thursday morning in Salford, but it encapsulated his determination to change Greater Manchester, and his aim to bring a vision for an “unashamedly entrepreneurial, endlessly innovative city where people get on, but also give back”.

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This rhetoric was reminiscent of Sadiq Khan’s approach in London, putting forward an all encompassing vision for Manchester not driven along typical factional lines. Many audience members were surprised, but not necessarily displeased, by Burnham’s positive approach to businesses and startups, with one remarking that, for a candidate attacked in the leadership election as “continuity Miliband”, Burnham seemed to be more David than Ed.

Noticeably absent from Burnham’s speech was any mentions of Trade Unions, which was made understandable after the event, when UNISON (the second biggest Union in Labour), joined Unite (the largest affiliated Trade Union) in their support for ex-chair of the PLP Tony Lloyd. Lloyd, 66, is considered to be Burnham’s strongest challenger   however, many members at Burnham’s launch dismissed Lloyd’s bid, suggesting his lack of vision for the region would come back to haunt him later in the election.

Despite Manchester’s high union presence, any chance of Burnham losing out on the nomination is unlikely, due to his large national profile, strong rebuttal of the failures of the conservatives in Manchester and his unified but radical approach to opposing the national government – engineered to prove not only popular within the Corbyn-supporting suburbs of Manchester, but also in the deprived towns sitting outside Manchester likely to swing the selection.