Third term Mayors get radical and ready for change of government

Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram

As both Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram stepped off the stage at their comfortable victory declarations, they were both afforded the luxury of a strong mandate – even on a low turnout – but also a longer four year horizon.

It’s the first time that either Metro Mayor has had a four year term to plan for. Their first wins in 2017 were for three-year terms, which ended up being extended by a year due to the pandemic, the second from 2021, shortened to three to make up for that scheduling disruption.

But both their manifestos and their pithy acceptance speeches also seemed to price in a change of government, as did their outline of a vision in their book Head North, a rallying cry for a more equal Britain – a revelatory and confident celebration of what devolution has achieved so far, and what they hope can be the bedrock of a wider ambition to ‘rewire’ the constitution of the country.

Metro Mayors may have been a Tory idea, but for the two Mayors they have served to demonstrate to Labour leader Keir Starmer, and his would-be Iron Chancellor Rachel Reeves, that they can help an incoming Labour government to hit the ground running and be the legislative mechanism to deliver the party’s programme for government.

Relations with Labour HQ are cordial. At the Labour Party conference last October in Liverpool, Burnham was behaving himself, sharing platforms with would-be ministerial talent, such as Wirral MP Alison McGovern, about what they could do together in partnership. 

And as Burnham told the Northern Spin podcast last summer: “The Combined Authorities of England now which are quite mature and quite established, and we could get on and make changes really quickly for a Labour government, for instance, building council housing, Net Zero homes for social rent, we could do that,” he said.

Similarly, Liverpool City Region’s Steve Rotheram has also spoken excitedly about the industrial opportunities that a Green Energy revolution can do for job creation around his Mersey Tidal Power scheme.

Burnham and Rotheram at Net Zero NW launch

“We’re being held back by a lack of an industrial strategy at a national level,” he said at the launch of the Net Zero North West manifesto, where he cited the support given by the Danish government for their renewables sector as a key part of its success, in contrast to the UK.

Significantly, Rotherham’s strategy is bold on infrastructure and big visions. Burnham’s looks more to stay one radical step ahead of a Labour government. It befits a confidence of a Mayor who has got to grips with the officer class in the city region who respond when the Mayor pulls the levers. 

Save for this piece of academic research, Burnham’s ‘capacity building’ and its overall importance to the creation of ‘powerful networks of the willing’ is an underappreciated feature of his administration, and an understated phenomena. 

Always a strong retail politician with an emotional drive, Burnham believes his version of the place driven “new politics” can now show a radical edge over areas of policy that Labour nationally are tip-toeing around.

His third term manifesto majored on three themes – housing reform (building more Net Zero council houses); a shake up the curriculum to create a localised skills pathway for kids that don’t go to university; and, most radical and less understood of them all, a shift in the benefits system to pivot from punitive sanctions to a ‘whole-person’ wellness package of support.

Andy Burnham re-elected

Good politics is often about picking your battles, and taking your victories in good stead. Burnham was gifted the bus companies and a discredited Conservative government that gave him the fury to put on his North Face jacket and challenge them to a proper stand-off.

He also wisely demonstrated he could be pragmatic and place-centred when he struck a deal with Michael Gove on a Trailblazer devolution deal to offer single-pot funding, after senior GM officers constructed a business case.

But there are going to be battles head. Burnham and Rotheram’s book rails at a Whitehall system that closes ranks, perpetuating injustice. They also call for the Treasury green book formula to be ripped up, as it’s model that favours economic impact in already high performing areas.

Burnham’s agenda challenges not only the Treasury, but the Department for Work and Pensions, Education, Levelling Up and Transport.

At 60, Rotheram, the non-flying, non car-driving local-boy-made-good seems to have the drive and vision, if not the machinery of local government institutions, to push for change as forcefully as his good mate down the M62.

The much younger Burnham has seemingly managed to wrestle himself away from the question about his leadership ambitions and speaks with zeal and customary passion about the task ahead in Greater Manchester. But in creating a more radical agenda, if he delivers on it, and wins a couple of scraps, then the end of the current four year term will fall in May 2028, tantalisingly close to the last phase of Labour’s first term back in government.

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