After months of local campaigning, backbiting and press releasing, the Greater Manchester mayoral election has finally piqued the national attention. Andy Burnham’s apparently sudden declaration he will run for the role has thrust the race into the limelight.
There may be more than a hint of cockiness to his claim that the competition needs a ‘big name’ to raise its profile, but there is also more than a hint of truth. Unlike the London race, there has so far been little momentum to its poorer northern relative. But for Andy Burnham the question that really matters, given that the Labour candidacy is likely to determine who becomes mayor of 2.5m people next year, is whether he can actually do it. And it’s far from a given.
This week it emerged that candidates have been given perilously small budgets with which to campaign, compared to the huge sums spent by London’s Labour hopefuls. That leaves police commissioner Tony Lloyd with a distinct advantage. He already has the official backing of Unite and Unison, with more unions likely to follow. It gives him the extra resource and reach not available to either of the other two. Meanwhile he’s been seriously working the field since he was made interim mayor last year, alongside more recent rival Ivan Lewis.
But there are deeper problems. Senior figures whom you might expect to back Burnham have expressed scepticism. In others his announcement has elicited four-letter responses. Just over a year ago he was insisting Greater Manchester’s health devolution deal, of which his Labour colleagues were so proud, had been ‘drawn up on the back of an envelope’ and ‘would not be on offer from a Labour government’. That prompted a reported shouting match between Burnham and local colleagues. A year and a second failed leadership bid on, he wants to run that very project.
His attempt to paint a picture of the north as a wasteland for ambition may not go down too well either. Aspiration is harder for northerners, according to his campaign launch. ‘You say to someone: “Oh, I’d like to be a doctor.” Or be a lawyer or a member of parliament. And you worry you’ll have the mickey taken out of you straight away.’
Aspiration in the north can certainly be harder than elsewhere. But lack of collective ambition is not the reason. The one thing Greater Manchester has never lacked – as the devolution deal proves – is ambition. That’s not to say the other candidates are viewed with gushing enthusiasm either. Many wonder what Tony Lloyd can actively point to as concrete achievements during his four years as PCC. Ivan Lewis is still viewed as the Blairite outsider in the race.
There is still all to play for. But judging by the private mood among many seasoned Labour figures, Andy Burnham’s pledge to be the race’s ‘big name’ may not be enough. And if it isn’t, losing two leadership contests and a third in your back yard may be one too many failures from which to bounce back.
Jennifer Williams is the social affairs editor for the Manchester Evening News