As Keir Starmer spends the weekend working out how exactly to bounce back from disappointing results for his party in the local elections, not every Labour politician is down and out. Step forward Andy Burnham. The Greater Manchester mayor has this afternoon been re-elected with an impressive 67.3 per cent of the vote. In his victory speech on hearing the news, Burnham appeared close to tears as he thanked his family for their support and called for more devolution in England.
But it’s another part of Burnham’s speech that’s likely to set the cat among the pigeons. The former Labour MP used his speech to offer advice on devolution, not just to the Prime Minister but to ‘all Westminster parties’. What was notable about Burnham’s speech was his focus on location rather than party, as he promised to ‘adopt a place-first, not party-first approach’. He argued that he had won all the ‘red wall’ seats in Greater Manchester by offering a programme of change. There was also an anti-London sentiment as Burnham warned: ‘Don’t give us devolution and be surprised if we answer back. Particularly when you try things here which you wouldn’t dare in London.’
In an interview with Sky News following the count, Burnham was asked about the state of the Labour party. While he emphasised that he was not a Westminster politician anymore, the Labour metro mayor still found plenty to say about the state of his party. He said the party needed to change in order to win back seats in traditional Labour heartlands, where they had lost touch with voters. That change, Burnham said, needed to be more than cosmetic.
So, what about a new leader? When asked whether the former Labour leadership hopeful would be interested once again in the top job, Burnham said he had the ‘best job in the world in the best city region in the world’ – before adding that ‘in the distant future, if the party were to need me, they should get in touch’. It’s not exactly a helpful intervention for Team Starmer. Few in the parliamentary party believe Starmer will leave his position anytime soon. But with questions being asked as to Starmer’s purpose as leader – whether it’s to help heal the party rather than enter No. 10 – Burnham’s ascent comes at an awkward time.
The local election results have brought back into focus questions over Starmer’s credentials: whether as a ‘remainer lawyer’, they are the right ones to win back voters in the red wall. The party has also had a disappointing result in London with the race being much tighter between Sadiq Khan and Shaun Bailey than many expected. In contrast, Burnham’s sizeable victory in Greater Manchester is one of the reasons he is now the bookies’ favourite to be the next Labour leader. While Burnham receives a mixed reception these days in the parliamentary party, if the debate in Labour stays focussed on how to win back seats in the Midlands and North, expect Burnham’s name to be mentioned more frequently in the months to come.
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