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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It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.