I was wrong: turns out, Andy Burnham is genuinely popular

The new mayor of Greater Manchester. Image: Getty.

I’ve not always been kind to Andy Burnham. During his 2015 bid for the Labour leadership, I laid into him in the New Statesman, mocking his clumsy attempts to weaponise his own northern-ness, and his tendency to pander to whichever faction of the Labour party happened to be dominant at any one time.

It turned out that there was a sizeable market for mean jokes about Andy Burnham. So, as is the way of these things in the age of social media, I made a lot more of them. There’s an audience participation bit of the CityMetric podcast, where we ask a question on Twitter and then read out the best responses. On the week Burnham was selected as Labour’s candidate to be mayor of Greater Manchester, the question was: “How will he screw it up this time?”

But maybe I was wrong. Maybe Andy Burnham knows something I don’t. Because there is no interpretation of last week’s mayoral elections in which he doesn’t emerge as the big winner.

We may mock his flexible principles; we may roll our eyes at the way a Cambridge graduate who was a special advisor at the age of 24 claims to be from outside the Westminster bubble. But he just stood to be mayor of a city of 2.8m people on a socially progressive platform – and in a field of eight candidates, he won 63 per of the vote. 

A bad day for Labour

A quick recap for those who weren’t reading my liveblog on Friday.

Last week, six English regions elected their first metro mayors. One of them was safe Tory territory (Cambridgeshire & Peterborough). Two were all but a lock for Labour (the Liverpool City Region and Burnham’’s own Greater Manchester).

The other three, though, were more competitive. The West Midlands should also have been safe Labour territory – but thanks to the party’s broader travails and, frankly, the weakness of its candidate Sion Simon, the race was on a knife edge. In the West of England, the use of the supplementary vote system meant it was as a genuine three-way marginal. As for the Tees Valley, it’s faintly shocking that an area focused on Middlesbrough should have become a battleground for Labour – yet somehow it had.


In the end, Labour lost every race it could, despite repeatedly coming almost painfully close. Its candidate in the west of England, Lesley Mansell, made the run off – by no means guaranteed – but still lost to Tory Tim Bowles, 51.6 to 48.4. Another Conservative, Andy Street, won the West Midlands, 50.4 to 49.6; Sion Simon, who has been campaigning for a mayor in his home city of Birmingham for seven years now, lost by under half a per centage point.

As for Tees Valley, Labour’s wonkish and thoughtful candidate Sue Jeffrey lost to a Tory, Ben Houchen, whose campaign consisted of a handful of policies silly enough to garner headlines. On what was a bad day for Labour generally, the mayoral elections showed that the party is under threat from Theresa May’s Tories even in its heartlands. 

Burnham bucked this trend. It isn’t just that he won, which, my trolling aside, was s always probable; he won really, really well.

He won more than 50 per cent of first preferences, meaning there was no need for a run-off. He carried all 10 boroughs including Trafford, where his Tory opponent Sean Anstee leads the council. My colleague Stephen Bush has been crunching the numbers: he tells me that the only Labour-Tory marginals where Labour didn’t fall back, or seats where the UKIP collapse benefited Labour rather than the Tories, all seem to be those in which the Labour candidate was Andy Burnham.

Victory can probably be explained by Manchester’s political make up.  Victory on this scale cannot. All else being equal, you’d expect Steve Rotheram, the new mayor of the Liverpool City Region, to have had the day’s biggest vote share. But while he too won on the first round, he ‘only’ got 59 per cent.

In the 2015 general election, Labour beat the Tories in Greater Manchester by just under 20 points. Since then, most polls have shown the latter gaining and the former fall back – yet Burnham beat Anstee by more than 40. Burnham was clearly selling something that people wanted to buy.

Winning here

So what his explains his success? One possibility is that it’s a fluke of low turnout, just 28.6 per cent; but that doesn’t explain why Rotheram didn’t benefit too. Another is that Burnham was offering popular policies, like free transport for 16 & 17 year olds. But while I wish I lived in a world where policy swings huge numbers of votes, I unfortunately live in this one, so I’m not buying that either.

A more plausible explanation is that it’s Burnham profile that did it.

Individual reputation matters far more in mayoral elections than in parliamentary ones (note the success of independents in past elections), and Burnham is by far the biggest name to stand in any of these races. To many who voted, indeed, he was probably the only familiar figure: that could have swung a few points, enough to move him from victory to landslide. 

But here’s one more possibility: in Manchester, Andy Burnham is genuinely popular. The flipflopping goes unnoticed; the insiders jokes about his favourite cocktail being chips and gravy don’t cut through. We – I – may sneer; but maybe when the voters looked at Andy Burnham, they saw a nice, normal northern bloke who wants to do good things for the north west.

Maybe I was wrong about Andy Burnham – but I’m glad to have been so. Because the north deserves a big local figure to speak up for it – and right now, the Labour party needs all the popular politicians it can get.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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