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5 June 2023

Andy Burnham is a recurring problem for Starmer

The Manchester mayor has intervened again in Labour politics. Last month he told the party leadership to “leave me alone”.

By Freddie Hayward

Here comes the cavalry. Mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram have condemned Labour’s treatment of Jamie Driscoll, the mayor of the North of Tyne, who has been blocked by the party from standing in the newly-formed position of mayor in the north-east.

Labour itself won’t comment on “individual cases” but its governing National Executive Committee (NEC) seems to have taken the decision because Driscoll interviewed Ken Loach, who has been expelled from the party, about his films that were made in the north-east region. On the interview round yesterday (4 June), Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow business secretary and member of the NEC, justified the decision in terms of Labour’s zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism. However, Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite, and Driscoll both attribute the decision to the mayor’s left-wing views.

But back to Rotheram and Burnham. They write in a letter to the NEC: “Whilst we appreciate the NEC’s important role in upholding standards within the Party, and rooting out any form of anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination, it also has a responsibility to ensure decisions are democratic, transparent and fair. To exclude a sitting Mayor from a selection process with no right of appeal appears to us to be none of those things.”

There are a few factors to keep in mind with this story. First, the decision bolsters Starmer’s claim to have taken a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism, which appears to include sharing a platform with someone expelled from the party over the issue.

Second, Burnham’s intervention will heighten tensions between himself and Starmer. Labour figures in Westminster often grumble that Burnham’s campaigning, such as on proportional representation, distracts from winning the next general election. Last month, Burnham asked Starmer’s team to “leave me alone”.

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Third, if Labour does win the next general election, then mayors such as Burnham could act as a ballast to a tightly run Westminster operation, in the same way that Andy Street, the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, has been critical of the government’s levelling-up strategy.

Driscoll was hoping to be selected for a new mayoralty in the north-east, which will receive substantial powers and £1.4bn over the next 30 years. The candidate for this well-endowed position will now likely be someone closer to the leadership, someone who will cause Starmer fewer problems beyond 2024.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: What could go wrong for Keir Starmer?]

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