What was it Tony Blair said on that May morning 20 years ago? A new dawn has broken, has it not?
Andy Burnham’s convincing victory as Greater Manchester Mayor may prove to be a pivotal moment in our politics in years to come. The former minister and MP for Leigh won over 60% of the 359,352 votes, beating Tory candidate Sean Anstee in second place, with 128,752 votes.
When the new Mayors were devised under George Osborne’s sweeping Northern Powerhouse plans they were heralded as a new way of doing politics. A directly elected person, similarly selected and mandated to the London figurehead, but with a different underlying structure. Less beholden to party politics and a more distinctive and open style. That’s what Osborne said he wanted.
There have been times when it has looked as if the Mayors were becoming a lifeboat for frustrated Labour politicians looking to escape the national meltdown and toxic atmosphere in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Pundits speculated that Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, now Greater Liverpool’s Mayor, were following Sadiq Khan on a different route towards a future leadership challenge in the years to come.
There was also a fear that Theresa May wasn’t keen on Mayors. After taking office (and taking stock) she was lukewarm on the very idea of the Northern Powerhouse and this needless lifeline for Labour.
The election of Conservative candidates changes all of that. Andy Street in the West Midlands, Tim Bowles in the West of England and Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley shifts the risk calculus. Suddenly a civic Conservatism, so beloved of Theresa May’s senior advisor Nick Timothy, has been revived. So too, it’s fair to say, is a metropolitan version of New Labour, pragmatic, reforming and inclusive.
Certainly Burnham has bucked a national trend as Labour continues its habit of losing to everyone, everywhere, as Jon Cruddas summarised the 2015 General Election defeat in his post mortem. This time, as the Green Party candidate Will Patterson wryly commented, Andy Burnham had “campaigned as an independent”. Burnham himself may dispute that, so too may the 1000s of Labour members who are entitled to enjoy a rare moment of electoral joy, but he certainly made it clear he was answerable to no-one but the people of Greater Manchester, not to the Labour leadership.
The challenge for all of the Mayors is to be taken seriously; by the electors, by government, by investors in our cities and by each other. Make no mistake there will be opportunities for cities to work together, but there will also be competition for investment and government attention. They will be defined as much by the grab for more new powers to extend what they already have, as for their ability to use soft power to strike deals and make the weather.