‘They patronise the north’: Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham on why he lost faith in Westminster

The former UK cabinet member, who was beaten to the Labour leadership by Jeremy Corbyn, is making a bid for a third term as the directly elected mayor and ‘King of the North’

It is a drizzly, dank day in Manchester, the gritty cultural city that has emerged as an economic powerhouse of England’s northwest. Rainbows festoon the gay village around Canal Street, but not the sky. You need sunshine for that and the weather may be the only thing in Manchester that rarely plays ball.

It might be miserable outside, but not inside the city centre offices of Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester since 2017. He brims with optimism as his campaign cranks up in advance of the election on May 2nd in which he seeks a third term.

“I’ve been much happier in the last seven years than I ever was in Westminster,” says Burnham, who served 16 years in the UK parliament as an MP. He was seen as a talented young minister under former prime minister Tony Blair and graduated to full cabinet member in Gordon Brown’s government.

He lost to Ed Miliband and, later, Jeremy Corbyn in contests for the Labour leadership. Yet he has such a high profile as Manchester mayor that questions over his possible return to London for another tilt at national power never fully go away. To his supporters, Burnham is the suave communicator that the more stilted Labour leader Keir Starmer will never be. To his detractors, he is a self-centred careerist. He and Starmer are not known to be close.

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Burnham insists he hated the Westminster party system, built around the tyranny of the whip. “The longer you’re there the more it makes you look like a fraud to the public. You’re voting for things you only half-believe in. You lose a sense of yourself.”

He believes he has achieved greater change under England’s regional devolution system that seven years ago gave more powers to Manchester, allowing its mayor to tackle issues such as transport, education and child poverty. Burnham insists that, whatever people say about his allegedly undimmed national political ambitions, he is happier for now to stay in Manchester. He intends to see out another full term if, as expected, he wins re-election in May.

Manchester is less a place than a scene. Think 90s to noughties Madchester – the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Oasis and, before them, the Haçienda nightclub and Factory Records. Think the angsty industrial hub that was the birthplace of British trade unionism. Think the football-mad metropolis that, alongside Milan, is the only city in Europe to produce two Champions League winning clubs.

You might expect the mayor of a metropolitan area of 2.8 million people, one of the fastest-growing economic regions in the UK, to wear a jacket and trousers on the job. Burnham dresses well, but this is Manchester – he must reflect its vibe. Today he wears a fitted black blazer over a jet black T-shirt. His skinny black trousers alight on to black suede shoes. He has a bee – Manchester’s civic emblem – tattooed on his right bicep.

He is cool, collected and in control of his patter. He also knows his audience and, despite a carefully affected insouciance, is clearly well prepared. Burnham says he can’t fathom the Dublin riots of last November with their racially tinged edge: “I know Dublin, and that’s not Dublin and its people.”

He compares the historic neglect by the Westminster elite of Manchester, his native Liverpool and other cities in the north of England with some of the colonial hostilities heaped upon Ireland. From his time as an MP, Burnham is closely associated with the fight of Hillsborough families to get justice after Liverpool football fans were initially blamed by authorities for causing each other’s deaths. He doesn’t mention Derry in this context, but he appears to deftly draw a parallel with Bloody Sunday, when British authorities initially blamed the victims for causing their own shootings.

“Anyone with an Irish background will know that places in Ireland have been treated in exactly the same way [as Liverpool and Hillsborough] in history,” says Burnham.

All of this “down there in London” talk is what you might expect the electorally attuned mayor of a historically neglected second-tier city to say about its nation’s capital and economic elite. The Neapolitans say it about the Romans and Milanese; Münchners say it about Berliners. But there is a consistency and commitment to Burnham’s arguments. This politician sounds almost as if he actually believes what he says.

“There is a tendency to patronise the north. There is a mentality that says they can treat it differently. That came in the Covid pandemic when they tried to shut our hospitality sector down with a lower furlough payment than they were giving everyone else,” says Burnham. He went to war with the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, over regionally disparate pandemic payments. And he won, gaining himself the politically handy sobriquet “King of the North”.

Burnham sees traces of that mentality in the recent decision of current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, to announce the cancellation of the Birmingham-to-Manchester leg of the high-speed rail project, HS2. Sunak bizarrely chose to deliver the news, which the Tory leader presented as a brave call, in person in Manchester, without consulting the city, in its Central Convention Complex, an old railway station.

“That was a good example of where standards have been demolished in British politics. I’ve never spoken to Sunak since he became prime minister. He has never once picked up the phone.”

He believes Brexit was not quite the great xenophobic shift that it is sometimes portrayed by forlorn commentators at home and abroad, at least not in relation to the Red Wall north of England.

“It was more like a cry for change, a howl of anger, because we are such an unequal country. Painful as it is, Britain is now starting to process all of that. What we’re doing here [in Manchester using the powers of devolution] is part of the answer,” says Burnham.

He gives examples. Margaret Thatcher deregulated bus systems nationally in the 1980s, promising that market economics would deliver better services and lower fares. It plainly didn’t, Burnham argues. He said successive UK governments, including the Labour ones of which he was part, failed to rectify this and other similar problems.

“Buses late? Nothing you can do. Doesn’t turn up? Nothing you can do. You can understand where alienation [up north] comes from. The governments I was in didn’t do enough to reverse it because life is different inside the M25.”

As mayor Burnham has reconstructed the region’s transport network, including buses, back under public control. He plans vocational educational reforms, the MBacc (Manchester baccalaureate), to improve prospects for local kids who don’t want to go to university. He believes regional English devolution has given northern regions such as Greater Manchester the power and freedom to strive.

Ironically, he believes the economic constraints facing an incoming Starmer Labour government give it an advantage over Blair’s triumph of 1997. This time, Burnham argues, the devolution system that could deliver real change is already in place.

“Labour came in in ‘97 on a tidal wave of support, expectations were [high], but there was no system for delivery. Keir would have a reverse of that. We can join the dots with place-based policy thinking,” he says, adding that he has already met Starmer’s chief of staff, Sue Gray, to plot how change might be delivered.

Burnham may have a vision as mayor of Greater Manchester, but as a native Liverpudlian (and Everton season ticket holder), he will always have to deal with an underlying identity crisis. He recalls once attending an Everton versus Manchester City match at Goodison Park. The Manchester club’s fans spotted him and started chanting “you Scouse bastard”. So he moved quickly towards his fellow Everton fans, who then chanted at him “you Manc bastard”.

“I can’t win,” he says, smiling. On May 2nd, when Manchester votes, he might be able to say the opposite.

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