During the Greater Manchester mayoral hustings on Tuesday evening, I watched three very impressive candidates battle it out to become Labour’s nominee for the 2017 race. Ivan Lewis, Tony Lloyd, and Andy Burnham all provided some promising responses to the issues that matter in Manchester; particularly over housing, transport, and health.
It was Andy Burnham, however, who really stuck out for me.
Most encouraging was his recognition of the need for an ‘industrial strategy’ for Greater Manchester. With recent regeneration focusing far too heavily upon leisure and retail, such a plan – if conceived properly – will rejuvenate a region starved of funding, and provide a basis for growth, jobs, and the revivification of local communities going forward.
Discussion over a more immediate concern, transport, highlighted a consensus among all three candidates of the need for concessionary measures for certain groups, and particularly the introduction of an Oyster Card-style system for Manchester. But it was Burnham, while noting there would be ‘riots in the streets’ of London if they had similarly inadequate transportation, who provided the clearest vision. Marrying together his campaign-long focus on young people, Burnham’s announcement that those attending school and college will receive a free bus pass will come as music to the ears of many who have had to bear the hefty costs of Manchester’s patchy transport system.
A recurring point of contention was the evident contrast between Burnham, a contemporary juggernaut of Labour politics with national recognition, and the other lesser-known candidates. No doubt, all three have a tremendous amount of experience; be it Lewis’ impressive achievement of setting up a mental health charity at the age of 19, or Lloyd’s work in the historic devolution agreement for Manchester.
Burnham, however, provides national experience with a local edge.
His tenacious work in the Hillsborough inquiry demonstrates a capacity to utilise the often convoluted Westminster channels to achieve progress on issues closely related to the local community. In this sense, a mayor with national experience is best placed to deliver for the people of Manchester; providing the region with a high-profile spokesperson for the attention it deserves, but rarely receives.
These are troubling times for Labour. Particularly in the party’s traditional northern strongholds, where the UKIP message is resonating with a growing number of working class voters. The first response from Labour, as Burnham stressed, must be to tackle the immigration issue head-on through understanding the work-related pressures which many feel are tied to immigration, but offering the different, more accurate narrative that it is in fact the Conservatives who are primarily responsible.
The days of tribal politics are gone. Labour must offer its core voters a clear set of reasons, a direction, to vote for them. For Manchester, that means immediate infrastructural investment and an industrial strategy fit for the contemporary era, providing tangible changes to a region whose funding so often fails to match its potential. It means offering the party’s biggest and brightest names as a symbolic gesture to the region that it remains a pivotal part of Labour’s present and future.
Andy Burnham, with a clear strategy and a track record of success, is best placed to deliver these changes.