Greg Taylor is a political consultant and was formerly public affairs manager at the Local Government Association and in the Mayor of London’s office.
In Game of Thrones, returning soon to detail the final bloody power moves of its remaining players, King in the North is one of the most coveted and cursed titles up for grabs. Seated physically and politically far from the country’s corrupt southern capital, the position bestows dominion over swathes of rugged land and commands the loyalty of armies of gruff bruisers whose banners bind the North together. But it also is the centripetal magnet for treachery and ambition, and a King is never too many moves away from a knife in the throat courtesy of southern powerbrokers, or being torn apart in a vicious coup.
On 4th May, Greater Manchester will elect its first ever Mayor, covering not only the culturally and economically successful city of Manchester itself (which hasn’t hosted a Tory councillor since a 2008 Lib Dems defection which held for two years), but also nine of its satellite council areas, seven solidly Labour and one (Stockport) in No Overall Control.
In those eight, Tories occupy just 78 of the 485 seats, with only the outlier Trafford bucking the regional trend and housing a Tory majority since 2004 thanks in no small part to the hard graft of Susan (now Baroness) Williams, Matthew Colledge, and Sean Anstee, the energetic current leader and now the compelling Conservative candidate for Mayor of Greater Manchester.
Sean overflows with optimism for the region, harmonizing neatly with its youthful and scrappy mood music (he would look as at-home in the Hacienda of yore as he does in the debating chamber). He will be a powerful Conservative voice in the North West. His biggest challenge is, of course, Scouse chancer Andy Burnham, understandably hoping to jump from Labour’s sinking Westminster ship and carve out a new leadership path in what will be, alongside the Mayor of London, the most high-profile municipal post in the country.
Burnham took his cues directly from the Sadiq Khan playbook to leapfrog over mayoral hopefuls Tony Lloyd and Ivan Lewis. He demonstrated loyalty to the Momentum mob by clinging visibly to Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet table while fellow players decamped to Parliamentary committees to bide their time and build their bases. He has been conspicuously silent on Labour’s leadership woes, and is associated neither with the disastrous Copeland by-election (though his campaign manager, Andrew Gwynne, oversaw Labour efforts there) nor the deeply unedifying Stoke-on-Trent campaign, and he approaches the Manchester short-game relatively unsullied by his Party’s recent agonies.
And he’s the savvy choice for a Manchester run – big mayoral elections are glorified personality contests (last year’s London narrative focused far more on the son-of-a-bus-driver vs untested millionaire dichotomy than on policy differences) – and Burnham is one of few Labour names with the profile, clout and background to generate genuine interest in the election.
He comes with a meat and potatoes family-values message that plays well in the North, a whiff of man-of-the-people campaigner galvanised by his role in securing a second Hillsborough inquiry (and involvement in calls for an Orgreave investigation) and the visuals of having been a serious power player on the national stage – a sheen which quickly sullies when one stacks up his failure to introduce ID cards as Home Office Minister (no disappointment there), his shameful mishandling of the Stafford Hospital scandal as Health Secretary, and his frankly woeful leadership campaigns in 2010 (when he came 4th behind two Milibands and a Balls) and 2015 (when he was steamrolled by the Corbynista machine, racking up less than a third of the glorious leader’s votes).
But a mayoralty would suit Burnham’s ambition and abilities, allowing him to leave significant governance to the region’s constituent councils while building up both an enhanced national visibility and a strong epicentre for campaigning across the North, hitting target seats quickly and effectively, and bringing real local knowledge and flavour. His Liverpool origins would help bridge the divide between the North West’s economic centres, while Manchester’s growth and visibility has huge repercussions from Preston to Sheffield and beyond, where they would pay close attention to his movements.
Corbyn looks uncomfortable beyond his London heartland (and even there), and his failure to connect with Labour’s northern soul is a Scotland-level concern within party echelons. Having Burnham as a vassal king in the north, energising the electorate, overseeing campaigning across the region, and keeping Corbyn’s visibility beyond the M25 to a bare minimum, would certainly suit the big cheeses in London. Those Corbyn-focused leaflets, so potent in Copeland, may not stick so well if moderate Burnham becomes the acceptable face of Labour in the North, galvanising disillusioned supporters into an effective fighting force and embodying a sense of optimism that consistently eludes his party leader outside of his rabid fan base.
George Osborne and Greg Clark believed that regional mayors would be the cornerstones of a revitalised north, and they could be the cornerstones of a revitalised Labour Party too. A visit from Mayor Burnham to swing seats in Blackpool, Barrow or Bury would bring a whiff of excitement and electability, in stark opposition to the strange, curiosity-driven media circus that swirls around Corbyn and did Labour no favours in Copeland.
As Sadiq Khan (and Boris Johnson) found, a high-profile mayoralty casts its holder instantly to the top of the potential leadership pile, bestowing instant (small “m”) momentum and intrigue, while giving an unrivalled platform for pontification and self-publicity beyond borders, unprecedented in the oft-sober ranks of local government. Should he win, Burnham would likely replicate Khan’s moves, severing vassal bonds with London and flooding regional and social media with self-aggrandising initiatives and declarations, giving opposition both inside and outside his party minimum breathing room.
But Burnham would be faced with the Sophie’s Choice of pursuing his own agenda and fragmenting the Labour message or becoming his master’s voice in the north, setting even the most skilled politician up to fail in the face of strategic, intelligent opposition. In planning for a Labour victory, the Conservatives must prepare to go all-in behind Sean Anstee whose profile and political nous will be crucial to publicly dogging Burnham if he fails to deliver for the people of Greater Manchester, challenging him on the actual business of governing a varied city region, and exposing any disconnects between him and his leadership.
Whoever ends up sitting on the King’s throne will find themselves at the heart of a tempestuous struggle over the future of their party, and of the country as a whole. Their successes and failures will have far-reaching consequences far beyond the borders of Greater Manchester. The North, and the nation, remembers.