John Blundell contemplates Andy Burnham’s victory and how it will redefine the city region
As Andy Burnham wins his second term as Mayor of Greater Manchester, with 473024 out of 702784 votes (aka 67%), Labour councillor John Blundell says Burnham will define what it is to be Mancunian.
For Manchester to punch itself into the next tier of city, it must continue to ensure its hinterland identifies with the centre.
To do this requires more than the devolution of governance and a common policy framework among councils - as so far has happened in Greater Manchester. Most people are not even remotely interested in this. They are interested in popular culture, wider society and the place where they live.
Many questioned why we need a mayor but Burnham has made clear that the office, held by the right person, can unify the population in a way council leaders simply can’t.
Burnham’s apparent popularity and ability to transcend into common discourse without being seen as political is a huge benefit. This quality gives him the ability to corral people behind the Manchester brand. The powers he has in legislation are actually irrelevant. Andy Burnham captures the modern-day Mancunian zeitgeist.
More than any other city, Manchester has grappled with the identity crisis created by living in the shadow of the global behemoth that is London. Early this year I wrote about the benefits of re-labelling the city, by dropping the “Greater”, and unifying the region under the banner of Manchester and I am ever convinced Mr Burnham could actually achieve this.
Manchester v Westminster
There is more power in the Town Hall than in Westminster simply because to grow and build a city requires business, public opinion and the public sector to be corralled behind a vision that can only be lead from that place. You, of course, need the right leader. As Empire declined, Whitehall’s civil servants increasingly ran around looking for something to do. It has ever since encroached on the rights of our cities by governing affairs that should instead belong to that place. In Manchester, we want our city back.
Westminster Palace’s squandering of the legislative process and centralised budgets, unresponsive to our city’s needs, places a limit on what is possible unless you are the capital. During the French Revolution, after the revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, they captured the Ville de Paris (the Parisian Mayor’s home) because to control the seat of power you must have authority to govern over the population. When a state bureaucrat was appointed to govern Paris during the Second Empire he declared: “The capital belongs to the government”.
The key to Burnham's popularity
Sir Richard Leese played a pivotal role in leading Greater Manchester’s political leaders to form governance structures whereby the city could flourish economically - but we have so far failed to get people sitting at home in Farnworth and Leigh to identify with the Manchester brand. Many questioned why we need a mayor but Burnham has made clear that the office, held by the right person, can unify the population in a way council leaders simply can’t. Burnham is changing how people identify with where they live and how they feel about their place.
There is a degree of pretty privilege and Mr Burnham is certainly a heartthrob. The United We Stream service established by his Night Time Economy Advisor, Sacha Lord, highlighted Burnham’s coolness. This type of publicity is not normal for politicians to receive. Although it is hard to imagine anybody voted for him because of his reported good looks, his charisma and character give him a route into popular culture that most politicians simply don’t have.
The future of Manchester with Burnham in power
I can see - as a Labour Party official myself, in a significantly more modest way - Mr Burnham is creating a one-party city-state that is built around his popularity. The city itself will therefore be built around the tone and direction he sets and his ability to lead public opinion will ensure his vision’s success. Young Rochdalians increasingly look to the city centre for work and to access culture, in a way our parents never have, and Andy’s mayoralty is accelerating this process.
Andy Street and the Conservatives have done well in the West Midlands and this shows the weakness of the Labour Party but also that the Black Country simply isn’t as metropolitan as Birmingham. Here in Manchester, red wall seats fell in the north of the conurbation but by virtue of Mr Burnham, we have done better here because those people look to his leadership and increasingly to the metropolitan centre. Nobody in the Black Country thinks they are from Birmingham and Andy Street may be able to pick up the phone to Boris but his impact on the city long-term will be far less profound.
Mr Burnham needs to focus on the development of a Mancunian culture that has the critical mass to act as a genuine counterweight to the capital. Unification of the city region’s people cannot be dictated by a council bureaucrat or its Leaders but while Burnham is here we have a real chance of creating a single agglomeration that powers the northern economy. The North of England’s future, and Greater Manchester's prominence in that, rest in Mr Burnham’s hands.
Councillor John Blundell is a master of economics and studied at the University of Manchester. He also attended Birkbeck College. He was elected to Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council at the age of 20 and has been the Cabinet Member for Regeneration for several years.