What does Burnham for Manchester tell us?

By Chris Rogers May 19, 2016 2:58 pm

News that Andy Burnham, Shadow Home Secretary and one of Labour’s modern day ‘big beasts’ in the Commons, is planning to run for the Manchester mayoralty wasn’t exactly a stop the presses type moment. The signs were certainly there for Westminster commentators. Mr Burnham’s office had, after all, been sounding out opinion local opinion formers to see if their man was a viable candidate. And when an overly enthusiastic staffer secured the Twitter handle @Andy4Manchester, the cat was well and truly out the bag.

Mr Burnham has long been touted as a possible candidate for the mayoralty, and clearly made little if any effort to distance himself from the rumours. He’s likely to face stiff opposition for the Labour nomination, even before he goes head to head with the candidates of the other major parties. But, on paper at least, his experience and profile would suggest he’ll be the man to beat.

And Mr Burnham’s decision to pursue the position in Manchester, presumably forgoing his position on the Labour Party front bench, has greater significance.

Firstly, it demonstrates that Jeremy Corbyn is secure as Labour leader – at least for the time being. Labour parliamentarians have been reported in the national press to lament his performance in the Commons. And he’s been damaged by his handling of high profile issues such as Labour’s investigation in anti-Semitism and the comments of Ken Livingstone. But, for all that, polling shows his stock remains high amongst the rank and file. In fact, it’s never been higher. If a leadership contest took place today, Mr Corbyn would remain in charge, probably with an even bigger mandate.

In heading to Manchester, Andy Burnham has presumably not cast off his leadership ambitions (see the example of Boris Johnson). But he recognises that he’ll have to play a longer game, and is better served by success outside Westminster than on the front benches. His supporters will point to him remaining in the Shadow Cabinet since last year’s leadership contest as demonstrating his willingness to be a team player. But as Manchester mayor he can forge his own path, largely untied to the Corbyn-led parliamentary party.

Secondly, Mr Burnham’s decision reinforces the concept and importance of what George Osborne has frequently referred to as the Northern Powerhouse. Mr Burnham has described the position of Manchester mayor as “a cabinet-level job, which needs cabinet-level experience.” This will be music to George Osborne’s ears, but also underlines the importance both Tories and Labour will be placing on building up the northern economy and securing their influence ahead of the election in 2020.

Finally, Mr Burnham’s decision shows he’s prepared to take some risks – if you accept his ultimate goal is to be Labour leader (and, by further assumption, Prime Minister). He clearly recognises that he can achieve more as mayor than as a Shadow Secretary of State. And presumably that election to the position will help prevent him being tarred by association should a Corbyn leadership struggle in future local elections or fail at the General Election. But it’s a decision requiring some risk. Losing the mayoral election – or worse the Labour nomination – could irrevocably damage Mr Burnham’s aspirations to be Labour leader.

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