Amidst all the cheering over the local election results there was the odd disappointment for the Conservatives. There were gains in Nottinghamshire – but not quite enough to take overall control. It was also curious amidst the general triumph that Oxfordshire remains a hung council. However the most discouraging result was that of the election of the directly elected Mayor for Greater Manchester.
The point is not that the Labour candidate, Andy Burnham, won. Even in the context of the opinion polls and the fantastic Conservative progress elsewhere, it would have been pretty astonishing if he hadn’t. But it was the margin of the Labour victory that was startling. Burnham won with 359,352 votes to 128,752 for Sean Anstee, the Conservative candidate. That translates as 63.4 per cent of the vote against 22.7 per cent.
Compare that to the vote share at the last General Election. That had Labour on 46.1 per cent and the Conservatives on 26.4 in the Greater Manchester seats. So a ten per cent swing to Labour. If that was the swing nationally at the General Election on June 8th then Labour would gain 95 seats giving them an overall majority of four in the House of Commons and Jeremy Corbyn would be our new Prime Minister.
Why was the result in Greater Manchester so out of line?
It helps with these Mayoral contests to have a high profile and proven senior experience. Burnham was a former Labour leadership contender and Health Secretary – although it is not as if he distinguished himself in either capacity. His mentality over Mid Staffs Hospital was to cover up problems rather than deal with them. Still, there would be a sense that he would not be daunted by such challenges as managing the combined £6 billion health and social care budget which he is now responsible for. Also Labour supporters might have felt more motivated to vote when it was for somebody they had heard of. The turnout of 28.6 per cent was actually high relative to some other contests.
Anstee had the strong local credibility as leader of Trafford Council – which has been a great Conservative success story and is one of the authorities that make up Greater Manchester. Of course that did identify him with one particular area and emphasised his Party affiliation. Andy Street’s success in the West Midlands may have been assisted by neither of those factors applying. Voters traditionally hostile to the Conservatives could give Street a vote (or at least a second preference) after telling themselves that he’s “really” an independent.
So that might make the case for more leading businessmen to enter politics. It can go down well – as Donald Trump has discovered. On the other hand, it often ends in tears – for instance if a businessman is given a peerage and then made a junior Minister and then rages with frustration at being given an office in Whitehall but no power.
Perhaps the role of a directly elected Mayor is better suited to businessmen than a Parliamentary career would be. There is another advantage in that these tycoons tend to have enough money to pay for the leaflets to be printed and the assorted other expenses. Street was criticised for “buying” the election. But in this cynical age many voters will have been impressed by him making a financial sacrifice. Not only is he taking a huge salary cut but he put his hand in his pocket for his campaign. Surely that showed strong commitment?
A willingness by Labour supporters in Birmingham to break away from Party affiliation and try something different may also reflect the appalling record of Birmingham City Council. This has been going on for years and ranges from financial mismanagement to social work scandals – children’s services have been removed from the Council after being branded a “national disgrace”. But the problems are not over. Earlier this year Dame Louise Casey, the Government’s Integration Tsar, raised concerns about the Council’s equalities chief.
I have had my criticisms of Manchester City Council over the years but it is a much better run authority than Birmingham. Thus there is less local motivation to rebel against local Labour rulers.
Another lesson might be to get selected early. Momentum is key. Burnham was selected in August. He declared he wanted the job a year ago. There was a vigorous contest among Labour members which did no harm as they generated more attention than a coronation would have. Anstee entered the race last October amidst a low profile internal Conservative selection process.
Voters want the candidate to be hungry for the role. Being first out of the blocks is one way of convincing them that they are. Sadiq Khan had an advantage over Zac Goldsmith in being selected earlier as a candidate for Mayor of London.
Amidst the Conservative breakthroughs in so many other places, the electors of Greater Manchester show we still have work to do as a Party that reaches across the nation. Manchester City Council has no Conservatives councillors. Oldham has two. Tameside has six. Wigan has five. Salford and Rochdale each have ten. Even in Bury and Bolton there are substantial Labour majorities. Defeating socialism in these places come about from the bottom up. Only then will Mayor Burnham face a serious challenge.