Cllr John Blundell on straight bananas, the clean air zone and the price of populism

At the weekend, Andy Burnham released a statement regarding the Clean Air Zone, in response to "a number of serious allegations have been made in relation to my wife’s financial affairs". Here, our occasional columnist and member of Rochdale Council, John Blundell reflects on a political poisoned chalice and how we got here.

WE live in an era of populist politics where the soundbite is king and facts mean little. Plurality wanes as we shift to a politics where individuals embody the state rather than the party the public elect. This type of politics is an Americanisation we can all do without. When people are above parties, politics becomes personal and detached from the realities of the issues being debated.

It is increasingly the case that, rather than attacking someone’s policies, the public attack the person

Mayor Burnham and Prime Minster Johnson have both benefitted from an increasingly populist politics but have recently come a cropper of it in different ways. Boris’s Downing Street parties and the Clean Air Zone (CAZ) have proven how fickle politics can be.

When King Louis XIV of France was asked: "What is the state?" He replied: "L'etat, c'est moi" (or, I am the state). The Sun King’s prominence and personality meant he embodied 17th-century French culture and realpolitik. Louis didn’t face elections, or belong to a political party, so could say, and do, what he liked. His grandson faced the guillotine for having a similar attitude during the French revolution.

Attack the policies, don't attack the person

When politicians are confined by elections and the party (rather than their own celebrity) that gets them elected they are more likely to have to stick to the facts. Unfortunately, we now live in an era where the figurehead is more important than their party or their policies.   

This shift is coupled with the era of social media. It is therefore increasingly the case that, rather than attacking someone’s policies, the public attack the person. This is because there is no journalist to temper people’s frustration on Facebook but also because the focus of politics has shifted to personalities.

The latest bout of bad behaviour sparked by social media can be seen on roundabouts in the city. Someone has attached signs exclaiming Andy Burnham’s wife is “shagging the French” in the response to the introduction of the Clean Air Zone (CAZ). There is absolutely no excuse for this abuse, and it is completely unacceptable to attack our political leaders’ loved ones.

Calling the people who wrote this about Marie-France (Burnham’s wife, pictured above) misogynist would be too refined and may signal there is some level of sophistication to their private thoughts. The people who did this are simply idiots who read Facebook and think it is a news source. Some people have genuine concerns about the CAZ we must listen to but some of the characters who have screamed conspiracy theories at me about "Burnham’s CAZ" on the doorstep have left much to be desired.

Jade Hutchinson And Colin The Sheep Protest The Clean Air Zone In Greater Manchester
Anti-CAZ protestors have come up with some creative ways to make their feelings known Image: Confidentials

Who is responsible for the Clean Air Zone?

The CAZ came from an EU directive aimed at cleaning up our air. The ideas in the diktat were then adopted by the Conservatives when we left the EU. Although Boris promised no more straight bananas his incompetency has meant Councils have had to continue to draw up plans for tackling air pollution emitted from vehicles when the only real tool in the box to do so was charging. As is typical of GM, the plan was drawn up at a county level.

It was astonishing to watch the Prime Minster rail against "Burnham's CAZ" at PMQs and for him to say Keir Starmer failed to prosecute Jimmy Saville. These are complete distortions of reality. What is worse the PM knows what he is doing and the consequences of his words. 

Note my words: It was the Councils (not the Mayor) mandated to do this and it is Government ministers who will sign it off. Andy Burnham is in a position of leadership and admits he should have “woken up earlier to the coming problems” but the fact is it's not the Mayor’s decision to make. 

As I said when he won the last election, the powers he has in legislation are actually irrelevant. Andy Burnham captures the modern-day Mancunian zeitgeistHe has no real power over the CAZ but falls victim to his own popularity as GM’s poster boy. 

Andy Burnham At The Polling Station May 6 2021 Twitter
Andy Burnham at the polling station Image: Twitter

Boris Johnson chose not to throw his colleagues to the wolves when he stood by Cummings and Patel. I don’t believe in automatically sacking people when they have done something wrong but he has clearly created a culture whereby people think they can get away with anything.

He won the biggest Conservative majority since 1987, then got complacent and showed some serious errors of judgement at a time of national crisis. As a result of his presidential style, these failings are his failings.

Burnham and Johnson may both benefit from a populist politics but the difference between them is that the former now falls victim to misinformation about a GM-wide policy. The latter still relies on it to drum up support for his sagging popularity. 

Whatever you do, don’t be fooled by local Conservatives crawling around their constituencies looking for votes or the CAZ conspiracy theorists attacking Burnham’s wife. It is increasingly clear to me that the real danger of Boris (like Trump in America) is that he attracts to politics far-right conspiracy theorists armed with social media accounts.

Johnsonism represents nothing more than the start of the end. 

About the author

John Blundell is a graduate of economics at the University of Manchester and was elected to Rochdale Borough Council at the age of 20. He has worked as a transport and development economist both in London and Manchester.

John campaigns on trying to change the life chances of young people through literacy and art.

Read next: Andy Burnham puts Clean Air Zone 'on pause' after backlash

Read again: How will the Clean Air Zone affect Greater Manchester residents?

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