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10 August 2016

Jeremy Corbyn is the real winner of Labour’s mayoral elections

The nominations were won by Corbyn loyalists in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. 

By Julia Rampen

If you’re still unsure about the outcome of the Labour leadership contest, take a look at the party’s metro mayor nominations. 

Steve Rotheram, the Liverpool nominee, is Jeremy Corbyn’s private parliamentary secretary. Ten days before his victory in the selection process, he was standing in front of thousands of Corbyn supporters introducing the Labour leader at a city rally. 

Luciana Berger, another Labour MP who ran for the Liverpool mayoral nomination, used to also work for Corbyn as a member of the shadow cabinet. But in June, unlike Rotheram, she resigned.  One social media critic tweeted: “You’ve lost the vote for Mayor, Luciana. Lost the respect of ppl due to your failure to support Corbyn.” She was eliminated in the first round of the mayor nominations process. 

Andy Burnham, who won the Manchester nomination by a landslide, was one of the few shadow cabinet members not to resign in June. Ivan Lewis, the other MP running for the Manchester nomination, has been openly hostile to the Labour leader from the beginning. He came last.

As for Siôn Simon, the colourful nominee for the West Midlands, he escaped the pressure of a parliamentary coup thanks to being an MEP. But his campaign website features pictures of Simon with Corbyn and the slogan #TeamSiôn. 

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Fast forward to 2017, and it’s possible to imagine Corbyn’s supporters cheering as three of their own are elected to real power. It would be a massive “I told you so” to critics who argue Corbyn is making the Labour party unelectable. 

Indeed, Corbyn supporters are already celebrating. Jon Lansman, the architect of the grassroots movement Momentum, tweeted: “Really delighted at the news that Steve Rotheram is to be Labour’s mayoral candidate in Liverpool. A victory for democracy!”

But while the mayoral elections could offer the Labour party a taste of real power, they are not a good barometer for the party’s chances in the country at large.

Firstly, the chief reason commentators are already treating Burnham, Rotheram and Simon as mayors-in-waiting is not because members’ votes represent voters at large (they don’t) but because of Labour’s traditional grip on urban areas. Although there is room for surprise, it’s unlikely the Tories are going to find a Mancunian Boris Johnson in time for next May. 

Secondly, running for mayor allows you to duck many of the issues most poisonous to the Labour party, such as immigration and the EU referendum. Labour has far more coherence on mayoral bread and butter issues like transport (both Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith want to renationalise the railways). Cities – these days at least – have no border controls. 

Third, while the three nominated candidates are all Corbyn loyalists, they have their own back stories. Burnham is an experienced policymaker who started his career under Tony Blair and ran against Corbyn in 2015. The other two candidates have deep connections to the area they want to represent. Rotheram, who was born in Liverpool and started working as a bricklayer at 16, is a previous city mayor. Simon resigned ahead of the 2010 election, declaring his ambition to be Birmingham mayor – a job that at that time did not exist.

While the Corbyn sheen may have made triumph easier, each of these victories had deep foundations. If, when faced with voters rather than Labour members, the candidates need to distance themselves from the Labour leader, they have the credentials to do so. 

The real challenge for Corbyn supporters is to leave the inner cities, and win in the constituencies most different from the Labour selectorate, those backwater towns yet to be visited by a Corbyn rally, where the majority of voters opted to leave the EU. 

Take the Welsh constituency of Rhonnda. In contrast to Liverpool or Manchester’s centuries of urban life, it is a collection of former mining villages scattered across two valleys, most recently in the news for yet another pub closure. Its MP Chris Bryant served under Corbyn as the shadow leader of the Commons until he quit in June. He warned that if Corbyn were to lead Labour into a general election “we would lose 150 seats”.

If Bryant is right, Labour’s mayoral opportunities could be hardly be more different from its national challenge. In the former, the candidates know they are the favourites to win. In the latter, it’s simply a case of surviving.