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10 August 2016

Labour must drop its scepticism about metro mayors to deliver change

The party’s candidates are clear favourites, yet the national leadership remains sceptical of devolution. 

By Alexandra Jones

While polls suggest that Labour faces an uphill battle to win the next General Election, the party took an important step this week in its bid to secure power in some of the UK’s biggest city regions, with yesterday’s announcement of Andy Burnham and Siôn Simon as its candidates for metro mayor in Greater Manchester and West Midlands, and Steve Rotheram securing the Liverpool nomination today. 

Given the travails of the national party, these elections (due to take place in May 2017) may represent Labour’s best opportunity of governing, certainly in the short-term. But despite being clear favourites to win in their respective cities next year, Burnham and Simon both face a significant challenge in raising the national profile of these jobs and overcoming lingering scepticism about the new mayoral roles they are running for.

A common criticism we hear at the Centre for Cities is that the new metro-mayors are unwanted, top-down impositions by the Government – a view shared by some senior figures in the Labour Party, who often point to the failed local authority mayoral referenda of 2012 (on proposals for less powerful mayors, covering different geographies) as evidence for the lack of support for mayors. 

Recent ComRes polling of over 2,500 people in the biggest city-regions introducing metro mayors suggest that those criticisms are misplaced, with a clear majority backing the new mayors to have greater powers than local councillors.

But despite that public support, and the resounding victories of Burnham and Simon yesterday, it’s clear that both candidates (along with the nomination for Liverpool metro-mayor, due to be announced later today) have work to do to convince party colleagues, voters and many in Whitehall and Westminster that they can make a success of the new mayoral offices. 

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Burnham has the advantage of devolution being more advanced in Greater Manchester than other cities. His high profile will help in raising awareness of the role and offering a voice for Manchester on the national stage, and his cabinet experience may help convince voters that he can turn his vision of the area as a “beacon for social justice” into reality.

While this vision remains (understandably) somewhat vague as yet, the ComRes polling offers Burnham some pointers on what people in Greater Manchester want the new mayor to focus on – with integrating healthcare and social care (an idea Burnham has strongly backed) highlighted as a top concern for the new mayor, along with affordable housing. Offering a clear plan to tackle those issues will be critical for Burnham as the campaigning gets under way in the coming months

For Siôn Simon in the West Midlands, the battle to win hearts and minds may be tougher, with local councillors less convinced of the value of the new mayoral role, and West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson recently blasting the new mayoral powers as ‘totally inadequate’.

Again, however, local people are more enthusiastic, with the ComRes polling showing a majority of West Midlands residents back the idea of a powerful mayor of the city-region, and want the new mayor to concentrate on affordable housing and planning as priorities.

In Liverpool, Steve Rotheram, who is Jeremy Corbyn’s parliamentary private secretary, overcame stiff opposition to win the nomination ahead of Joe Anderson, the current mayor for Liverpool City Council (different to the metro-mayor, which covers the wider city-region), and his fellow MP Luciana Berger. 

Rotheram’s success can in part be attributed to his high-profile work on behalf of the Hillsborough families since becoming MP for Walton in 2015. He has said his priority is to develop more affordable housing in the city region, an issue highlighted as a key concern by local voters in the ComRes poll, along with the need to improve local transport links. 

In the coming months, the main focus of national media will continue to be on Labour’s ongoing leadership contest and its subsequent fall-out. But the party cannot afford to lose sight of the opportunities that the new metro mayor roles offer. Securing power in the UK’s biggest city-regions may offer one of the best chances of affecting real political change – and making a genuine difference to the lives of people in those places – in the years to come.