Does Labour know there’s such a thing as a metro-mayor? Two of the Labour incumbents, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram have written a joint letter to all the Labour leadership election campaigns, setting out eight questions about their plans for devolution in England and the role of the metro-mayors in the party’s internal structures.
The lack of seriousness from the outgoing leadership on the matter can be seen in its treatment of the candidates for the metro-mayoralties in the Tees Valley and West Midlands Combined Authority. These are two very tough races, where the incumbents both have a decent record to point to. Both Jessie Joe Jacobs, the charity head running against the incumbent Tory Mayor Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley, and Liam Byrne, the former cabinet minister and Hodge Hill MP running against Andy Street, were selected after Labour Party Conference. Jacobs was selected in October, Byrne only yesterday.
If you had wanted to time those selections to make their hard tasks harder, then you couldn’t have done a better job of it than the Labour leadership. It’s revealing of a general blind spot within the party as a whole – neither Rotheram nor Burnham has addressed the conference floor since becoming mayors. The Conservative Party has given more plum appearances to Shaun Bailey – who has about as much chance of becoming Mayor of London as I do of walking on Mars, and whom many Tories regard as an inadequate candidate – than Labour has to its incumbent mayors outside of London.
The leadership candidates are little better. Keir Starmer mentions mayors just once in his set of proposals for how local and devolved government will be treated under his leadership, while Lisa Nandy mentions them not at all in her big speech on devolution.
There’s a big reason for that: power. While the metro-mayors wield considerable power in the areas they run, they have neither soft nor hard power within the Labour Party. Councillors, who tithe their allowances to the Labour Party, are a bigger contributor to party funds than any single trades union. Their presence in almost every single constituency party in the country, too, makes them powerful allies – which is why most of the leadership campaigns are making sure to set out their proposals for them. And they have representatives on the ruling National Executive Committee.
There’s no political price to be paid within Labour for not taking the metro-mayors seriously. But as far as the struggle for power across the country goes, there’s a prize on offer if Labour’s next leader treats the metro-mayoralties with a seriousness that their position and powers deserve.