Can Burnham burst the Westminster bubble?

By Tom Bridge | 17 August 2016

Andy Burnham is quick to proclaim himself ‘a non-Westminster, Westminster politician’.

Given his 15-year long career as an MP, occupying roles including health secretary and his current position of shadow home secretary, his eagerness to distance himself from central government could be seen as surprising.

Yet recent events are pushing everything local. Devolution is seeing a power shift to councils, while the result of the EU referendum has been read by many as a rejection of the ‘Westminster bubble’.

A protracted battle within the ranks of Mr Burnham’s own Labour Party has seen members overruling their MPs to back their party leader in a swing towards the grassroots.

It is on this backdrop that Mr Burnham won the election to be Labour’s candidate for Greater Manchester’s first metro mayor.

He will fight the elections next year alongside a pair of colleagues with similarly close ties to central government.

Steve Rotheram beat Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson and MP Luciana Berger to clinch the nomination for Liverpool City Region, while MEP Siôn Simon took the candidacy in the West Midlands.

Speaking to The MJ, Mr Burnham says he believes he can do more to deliver ‘a balanced country’ by working in local government than remaining in the shadow cabinet.

‘I’ve complained about the unfair North/South divide, the way the country is unequal and the question for me was how could I change that? Could I do that by staying in Westminster or was it better to take a step outside and embrace this change? I decided to do the latter. I genuinely believe I can do more to close the North/South divide by doing what I’ve chosen to do.

‘We live in a very London-centric country. I’ve nothing against London, only in the sense that it’s hoovered up resources. As long as it’s fair, I don’t mind.’

Devolution, he argues, must be used as a route to rebalancing power but the introduction of metro mayors next year ‘needs to be the beginning of a journey not the destination point’.

‘At a local level we often find politicians are more pragmatic. They don’t go in for all the point scoring. They try and get on with life and make it work. It’s often Westminster which frustrates people.

‘I’ve come to the conclusion that Westminster is part of the problem not the solution. It has created a very unequal county. It continues to give a much more favourable deal to London and the South when it comes to transport investment than it does to the North. It’s given us a housing crisis. It’s made our young people the first target for cuts. It’s sold our manufacturing industry down the river.

‘Westminster hasn’t given the public the answers they were looking for.

‘The referendum result was a loud warning to the old guard and the old way of doing things, that people aren’t going to put up with it for much longer.

‘I would want to make the argument for other budgets being devolved to a local level, for example the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) budget. I am certain in Greater Manchester we could make a better job of spending that money, linking it to council functions, to the skills budget, to budgets for drug and alcohol use, to our voluntary and community organisations. We could do a better job with that money than the tick-box, top-down regime of the DWP, no question.’

Mr Burnham says the best response to the referendum result is to ‘deepen’ the devolution agenda. He highlights that it was the ‘fiercely proud, independent’ outlying towns of Greater Manchester which pushed for Brexit and he has clear plans to link them more closely to the city region.

‘We need an agenda for all of Greater Manchester, all of its towns.

‘We need an industrial strategy for the whole city region and we haven’t had that, or we haven’t had a sense that is what we’ve been trying to do. We need a plan for Oldham, Rochdale, Bolton, Wigan and Stockport.

‘At the moment they feel left behind as well. They don’t just feel left behind by national politics. They feel a bit like they’re not given a priority in local politics.

Focusing on housing, Mr Burnham says the current crisis in demand means ‘money needs to be spent in all 10 boroughs’ with a focus on council and social properties.

‘That is one of the changes I will be calling for straightaway,’ he emphasises.

Further transformation could stem from Mr Burnham’s plan to unite regions across the North.

Given the historic local rivalries, the Liverpool-born MP might be seen as an unconventional choice for Greater Manchester’s first metro mayor.

Mr Burnham quips that while he has ‘loyalties to both’ regions, he’ll remain a ‘proud supporter’ of his cherished, Merseyside-based football team, Everton.

With the North West home to clubs boasting fiercely loyal support, he no doubt hopes his dedication to the Toffees won’t prove to be an own goal when it comes to polling day.

But the Leigh MP is keen to emphasise the importance of a united North and says he is ‘well placed’ to bring regions together.

‘Part of our job is to speak as one North, to have one voice when it comes to – for instance – rail investment. When Merseyside lines up with Manchester, West Yorkshire the North East, we’ll start to get somewhere.

‘I know we’re beginning to do that but let’s do it now in a very forceful and direct way.’

He adds that local leaders cannot let the Government ‘get away with’ wavering on its commitment to the Northern Powerhouse.

‘They’ve been wandering round the communities of Greater Manchester for quite a while now, showering promises round like confetti. I just don’t think it would be in any way the right response to the referendum to rip up those promises.

‘The right response is not just to do what they said they were going to do, but to go even further. I will make that argument.’

Mr Burnham says the role in Greater Manchester will not be ‘a straightforward local government job’, given the accompanying influence over health budgets and admits he still holds ‘concerns’ over how such power was devolved.

His fears focus on the ‘top-down’ and ‘slightly secretive’ way in which the deal over spending was conducted.

‘If a candidate were to win the election next year, I would worry about the damage they could do to the NHS. They could undermine the “N” in NHS and take it in a very different direction. I still believe it potentially poses risks for the NHS.’

While health will take up a considerable amount of his time, Mr Burnham says transport and support for young people will be key among his priorities if he wins the mayoral race in 2017.

‘The motorways of the North West are full. We can’t carry on. If people in London had our rail system, there would be riots on the streets. They wouldn’t put up with it. We just cannot have many more billions being showered on Crossrail 2 when rail services in the North are as they are.

‘The Westminster approach of making young people the first target for cuts is wrong. The next generation should be our priority. I will make them so.

‘I will work to switch resources towards the young generations, focusing on quality apprenticeships, technical education but also – it seems a small thing – a free bus pass for 16-18-year- olds.

‘We’ve got to show them we want to invest in them and want them to get on in life. If we don’t, the social costs of not doing that will be massive in the long- term.’

He now has a year to convince the people of Greater Manchester that he can put such words into action. The metro mayor role will need a new kind of politician.

Time will tell whether Mr Burnham has distanced himself enough from the ‘old guard’ of Westminster to win local support.

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