New mayor Andy Burnham, elected on a disappointing 28.9 per cent turnout, is in uncharted territory. We all are. But in addition to learning how, in his new office, to tackle the region’s key issues as they present themselves, Mr Burnham has to learn to do something he’s never done before – work with a Conservative government.
The 47-year-old Aintree-born father of three and one-time contender for the leadership of the Labour Party has spent virtually his entire working life in politics since leaving Fitzwilliam College Cambridge with an English degree.
He served as a researcher and special adviser to Labour ministers before becoming MP for Leigh and eventually being elevated to Gordon Brown’s Cabinet. But he is now in an entirely different ball game where party political divisions must sometimes be put aside in the interests of the mayor’s 2.5 million constituents.
For an example, he need look no further than Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester city council since 1996, and recently described – despite his office being 180 miles from Westminster – as the most influential Labour politician in Britain.
Before 1984, Manchester town hall was run by old Labour. After Graham Stringer’s coup in 1984, hard left Labour took over. Post 1987’s great U-turn, Stringer invented his own take on what became “new” Labour, willing to work with the private sector long before anyone had heard of Tony Blair.
In the Jeremy Corbyn era, Sir Richard has described the city’s politics as “Manchester Labour”, saying: “The argument for us as a city is that we have to work with the government of the day and the way you do that is by offering them ideas and solutions. And that’s what we do.”
Mayor Burnham take note. This is the pragmatic political philosophy that has seen Manchester prosper, especially since the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. The city’s long-serving chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein, who stepped down recently, went further by suggesting that Manchester has been “punished” by Labour governments for working with the Tories.
There’s no doubt that Mr Burnham has enjoyed a glittering political career so far. Soon after his election as an MP in 2001, he served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Home Secretary David Blunkett and then to Education Secretary Ruth Kelly.
After the 2005 General Election he was promoted to junior ministerial roles, first in the Home Office and then at the Department of Health.
When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, Mr Burnham joined the Cabinet as, in succession, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport and Secretary of State for Health.
Following Labour’s defeat in 2010 he served in shadow cabinet roles and when Ed Miliband resigned after the 2015 defeat, Mr Burnham challenged for the party leadership but came a distant second to Jeremy Corbyn. Nonetheless he accepted Mr Corbyn’s invitation to become shadow home secretary, a role he quit last October to campaign for the Greater Manchester mayoralty.
But now, as he steps into his new job in charge of policing, fire services, housing and transport investment and a budget approaching £1 billion, Mr Burnham will have to co-operate with Conservative ministers rather than confronting them across the dispatch box.
In other words, mayor Burnham, who will also exercise influence over devolved elements of the health and social care services, must engage in real politics. And the reality is that Labour’s chances of forming a government at Westminster are unlikely anytime soon. Just weeks ahead of the snap General Election called by Theresa May, Labour took a hammering in the local polls, increasing the odds of a sweeping Conservative victory on 8th June.
Greater Manchester can’t afford to wait for Labour’s fortunes to change.