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 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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British television once sounded like Britain. But then, the ITV mergers happened

The Granada Studios, Quay Street, Manchester. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, several ITV franchises celebrated half a century of continuous operation. There was a Yorkshire Television themed cake, and a flag bearing the company’s logo was flown over ITV’s Yorkshire base for a time. It was all very jolly – but while a few people beyond Britain’s small community of television historians and old telly nerds engaged with the idea, any excitement was brief.

The main reason for is not, as you might assume, that, in the era of streaming and so forth, ITV is no longer a dominant presence in many people’s cultural lives: even the quickest of glances at the relevant figures would tell you otherwise. No, it’s because the mere existence of ITV’s franchises is now passing out of common memory. They are the trademarks, literally rather than figuratively, of a version of ITV that today exists only nominally.

For most of its history, ITV operated on a federal model. ITV wasn’t a company, it was a concept: ‘Independent Television’, that is, television which was not the BBC.

It was also a network, rather than a channel – a network of multiple regional channels, each of which served a specific area of the UK. Each had their own name and onscreen identity; and each made programmes within their own region. They were ITV – but they were also Yorkshire, Granada, Grampian, Thames, and so on.

So when I was a child growing up the in Midlands in the ‘80s, no one at school ever said “ITV”: they said “Central”, because that’s what the channel called itself on air, or “Channel Three” because that’s where it was on the dial. To visit friends who lived in other regions was to go abroad – to visit strange lands where the third channel was called Anglia, and its logo was a bafflingly long film sequence of a model knight rotating on a record turntable, where all the newsreaders were different and where they didn’t show old horror films on Friday nights.

The ITV regions as of 1982, plus Ireland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, there were programmes that were shown across the whole network. Any station, no matter in what part of the country, would be foolish not to transmit Coronation Street during the period where it could persuade nearly half the population to tune in. But even The Street wasn’t networked from the beginning: it started in six of the then eight ITV regions, and rolled out to the other two after a few months when it became clear the series was here to stay.

This was a common occurrence: The Avengers, one of the few ITV series to genuinely break America, began in an even more limited number of regions in the same year, with other areas scrambling to catch up when the programme became a hit.

The idea behind ITV’s structure was that the regions would compete with each other to put programmes on the network, opting in and out of others’ productions as worked best for them. ITV was, after all, an invention of a 1950s Conservative government that was developing a taste for the idea of ‘healthy competition’ even as it accepted the moral and practical case for a mixed economy. The system worked well for decades: in 1971, for example, the success of London Weekend Television’s Upstairs, Downstairs, creatively and commercially, and domestically and internationally, prompted other regions to invest in high end period dramas so as to not look like a poor relation.


Even away from prestige productions there was, inexplicable as it now seems, a genuine sense of local pride when a hit programme came from your region. That Bullseye was made on Broad Street in Birmingham was something that people knew. That 17.6m people watched the 1984 Xmas special, making it one of the ten most watched programmes of the year, made Bully a sort of local hero. In more concrete terms, Bullseye and other Birmingham based programmes provided jobs, and kept that part of the country visible from all others. This was true of all areas, and from all areas.

ITV franchises would often make programmes that were distinctive to, or set in, their region. Another of Central’s late eighties hits was Boon. It might have starred the cockney-sounding Michael Elphick, but it was filmed and set in Birmingham, just as Central’s predecessor ATV’s Public Eye had been at the end of the sixties. In Tales of the Unexpected, one of the poorest and smallest ITV regions, the aforementioned Anglia, made a bona fide international hit, largely filmed in transmission area, too. HTV produced a string of children’s series set in its south west catchment area, including some, such as The Georgian House, that examined the way the area had profited from the slave trade.

There was another element of ‘competition’ in the structure of ITV as originally conceived: the franchises were not for life. Every few years, a franchise round would come along, forcing the incumbent stations to bid to continue its own existence against other local offerings.

The process was no simple auction. Ministers were empowered to reject higher financial bids if they felt a lower bid offered other things that mattered: local employment or investment, programming plans that reflected the identity of the region they were bidding to serve, or simply higher quality programmes.

Yorkshire Television itself owes its existence to just such a franchise round: the one that followed a 1967 decision by regulator IBA that Granada, until then the holder of a pan-northern England licence, was insufficiently local to Yorkshire. For a decade, commissioning and production had been concentrated in Manchester, with little representation of, or benefit for, the other side of the Pennines. IBA’s decision was intended to correct this.

Yorkshire existed in practical terms for almost exactly 40 years. Its achievements included Rising Damp, the only truly great sitcom ever made for ITV.

But in 1997 it was, ironically, bought out by Granada, the company who had had to move aside in order for it to be created. What had changed? The law.

In 1990, another Conservative government, one even keener on competition and rather less convinced of the moral and practical case for a mixed economy, had changed the rules concerning ITV regions. There was still a ‘quality threshold’ of a sort – but there was less discretion for those awarding the franchises. Crucially, the rules had been liberalised, and the various ITV franchises that existed as of 1992 started buying out, merging with and swallowing one another until, in 2004, the last two merged to form ITV plc: a single company and a single channel.

The Yorkshire Television birthday cake. Image: ITV.

Yorkshire Television – or rather ITV Yorkshire as it was renamed in 2006 – is listed at Companies House as a dormant company, although it is still the nominal holder of the ITV licence for much of Northern England. Its distinctive onscreen identity, including the logo, visible on the cake above, disappeared early this century, replaced by generic ITV branding, sometimes with the word Yorkshire hidden underneath it, but often without it. Having once been created because Manchester was too far away, Yorkshire TV is now largely indistinguishable from that offered in London. (It is more by accident of history than anything else that ITV retains any non-London focus at all; one of the last two regions standing was Granada.)

The onscreen identities of the all the other franchises disappeared at roughly the same time. What remained of local production and commissioning followed. Regional variations now only really exist for news and advertising. TV is proud that is can offer advertisers a variety of levels of engagement, from micro regional to national: it just doesn’t bother doing so with programming or workforce any more.

Except for viewers in Scotland. Curiously, STV is an ITV franchise which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, doesn’t suffer from the restrictions/opportunities imposed by upon its English brethren in 1990. It also – like UTV in Northern Ireland, another complex, special case – Its own onscreen identity. Nationalism, as it so often does, is trumping regionalism – although it was not all that long ago that Scotland had multiple ITV regions, in recognising its own lack homogeneity and distinct regions, while respecting its status as a country.


As is often observed by anyone who has thought about it for more than four seconds, the UK is an almost hilariously over-centralised country, with its political, financial, administrative, artistic and political centres all in the same place. Regionalised television helped form a bulwark against the consequences of that centralisation. Regional commissioning and production guaranteed that the UK of ITV looked and sounded like the whole of the UK. The regions could talk about themselves, to themselves and others, via the medium of national television.

The idea of a federal UK crops up with increasing frequency these days; it is almost inconceivable that considerable constitutional tinkering will not be required after the good ship UK hits the iceberg that is Brexit, and that’s assuming that Northern Ireland and Scotland remain within that country at all. If the UK is to become a federation, and many think it will have to, then why shouldn’t its most popular and influential medium?

A new Broadcasting Act is needed. One that breaks up ITV plc and offers its constituent licences out to tender again; one that offers them only on the guarantee that certain conditions, to do with regional employment and production, regional commissioning and investment, are met.

Our current national conversation is undeniably toxic. Maybe increasing the variety of accents in that conversation will help.

Thanks to Dr David Rolinson at the University of Stirling and britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk.