All eyes are on Andy Burnham as Greater Manchester gears up for its inaugural mayoral election – but down the East Lancs Road, his home county is gearing up for its own contest.
The Liverpool City Region mayoralty encompasses Merseyside’s five local authorities – Liverpool, Knowsley, Sefton, Wirral, St Helens – as well as Halton in Cheshire. All six are firmly under Labour control and Steve Rotheram, the Corbynite MP for Liverpool Walton, is the hot favourite. So what’s going to happen?
Rotheram is likely to win the contest at a canter – it’s eminently possible, but not inevitable, that he’ll win in the first round. (The election will be conducted under the supplementary vote system.)
But he isn’t taking victory for granted. His is an ambitious and extensive manifesto that wrings every last bit of power from the comparatively measly settlement the City Region will get from central government.
Among them is control over local transport – and, in what may well be a sop to the all important Scouse/CityMetric crossover demographic, Rotheram promises to add to Liverpool’s mini-underground network by re-opening St James’ station, in the up-and-coming Baltic Triangle. He’s pressing ahead with plans for a new station in the city’s burgeoning Knowledge Quarter, too.
An appallingly vandalised Merseyrail map, showing where the new stations would be.
He also plans to fully integrate Merseyside’s bus services with its rail network if the Bus Services Bill is passed as expected later this year, and also wants to slash toll prices for regular users of the Mersey Tunnels (Liverpool – who knew? – is the only city in Europe without free cross-river travel).
His emphasis on travel is telling, and attests to the electoral wisdom of his “No Borough Left Behind” slogan: he is, at the risk of sounding reductive, Scouser than Scouse. For many voters, especially those in the outer boroughs, Liverpool only matters insofar as it’s the place where they work, study, or perhaps fly from; plenty in Southport and St Helens would take great offence at being branded Scouse. Improving his patch’s already respectable travel infrastructure is the easiest – and electorally lucrative – way for Rotheram to prove that the metro-mayoralty isn’t the Liverpool-centric project it risks being cast as.
A former bricklayer, Rotheram has also pledged to beef up the region’s apprenticeship and training offers, and promises concessionary travel rates for the youngsters who take them up. Which is nice. He’s also demanding Whitehall relocate government agencies – or indeed Channel 4 – to Liverpool. Policies aside, he’s also made much of his close relationship with Andy Burnham and makes the geographically questionable pledge to put Liverpool at the “centre of the Northern Powerhouse”.
Though Rotheram is likely to win in the first round of the contest, it’d be remiss of us to ignore Lib Dem Carl Cashman, the 25-year-old Knowsley borough councillor snapping at somewhere his heels might have been five minutes ago. Privately, local Lib Dems predict they’ll win somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent of the vote and finish a strong second: their campaign is a predictably pro-EU one, with pledges to maintain the area’s strong economic links with the EU. Liverpool, Sefton, and the Wirral all voted to remain in the EU referendum, and the former two have historically been happy hunting grounds for the Lib Dems (they controlled Liverpool City Council until 2010, and have held Southport’s commons seat since 1997).
And while Rotheram is pledging to leave no borough behind, the Lib Dems hope to tap into a sense of disenchantment with both one-party politics in the region – and a suspicion of the metro mayor model itself. Don’t get too excited, though – he also wants to protect the green belt.
Like the Lib Dems, the Conservatives too boast only one MP across the whole patch – in Weaver Vale, Halton – but are much less hopeful. Their man, Liverpudlian cushion tycoon Tony Caldeira, is essentially a paper candidate, and finished sixth and seventh in the Liverpool mayoral elections in 2016 and 2012 respectively (suggestions that former Tory minister Esther McVey might run came to nothing, and the local party had a real struggle filling the role this time around).
While only two of the 17 MPs in the region are non-Labour, the psephological complexion of the area means this strategy is perhaps less wise than it might seem. As Stephen and I discuss in the latest CityMetric podcast, at least four of those 17 seats are marginals which the Tories could conceivably win at the next election (Southport, Sefton Central, Wirral West and Wirral South). A high-profile run from a big-name candidate might well have boosted their long-term prospects in those seats.
The Greens, meanwhile, are running Tom Crone, a Liverpool city councillor who, like the Lib Dems, is putting questions about democracy and accountability front and centre of his campaign (as well as, predictably, the environment). The party is the official opposition on the council – albeit by virtue of having a whopping four seats – but has a negligible presence in the other boroughs. Local businesswoman Tabitha Norton is standing for the Women’s Equality Party: hers is the only manifesto to prioritise the region’s looming care funding crisis.
What of Ukip in all of this? Despite the permanently audible Merseyside provenance of their leader, Paul Nuttall, it’s unlikely that he’ll run – not least due to the furore over his questionable Hillsborough recollections and the fact that he’d struggle to come fifth. So far, the party has not named a candidate.