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King of the North: Andy Burnham vs Boris Johnson
I’ve just finished reading Deborah Mattinson’s new book on the so-called “Red Wall". In it, she writes: 'If a group of voters have long felt neglected and ignored by a national government, then what happens locally takes on a greater importance'. At a time when national government messaging on the COVID-19 crisis has been criticised for being unclear or inconsistent, this sentiment seems particularly pertinent. However, the past week’s often-visceral exchanges between Manchester’s Andy Burnham and Boris Johnson’s government have thrown this into sharp relief.
The underlying issue at the heart of these exchanges – the distribution of powers & leadership capacity between the centre and local government – is nothing new. Think back to the distant memories of the 2019 General Election (which, in many ways, seems almost a lifetime ago). The Tories achieved much of their success in “Red Wall” seats off the back of pledges to “level up” the North. Set aside, for a moment, the fact that such phrases can often come across as patronising (voters told Mattinson that they understandably didn’t recognise the homogenous term of Red Wallers, whilst “the North” is not a single entity that encompasses anything vaguely northward of Watford). The centre-local power and resource imbalance is a long-term trend in our politics. Efforts to resolve the tensions arising from it have given birth to a range of policies and initiatives (including the last decade’s talk of creating a Northern Powerhouse). As John Denham has written, this week, for the London School of Economics’ blog, these are not new questions.
One of the most notable features of this effort to address such imbalances (or, at least, talk about addressing them) has been the introduction of metro-mayors. There are currently eight such mayors, with more planned for areas such as West Yorkshire. A full list of where they represent, how many people they govern, and the differentiation in their powers can be found at The Centre for Cities’ website. Much has been discussed and written about whether these mayors have sufficient powers, the purposes they serve, and if the areas that they cover match to a local sense of identity (for instance, whether someone living in Solihull instinctively identifies as a West Midlander). I don’t propose to dwell on such questions, here.
Instead, I’m interested in what the Burnham-Johnson exchanges tell us about the government’s attitude towards mayors and, in return, whether current dynamics indicate a shift in the balance of authority between central and local government leaders. If, as Mattinson suggests, what happens locally takes on greater importance in times such as the current crisis, what is the outcome of spats such as these?
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of this conflict is that Boris Johnson himself is a former mayor. During his time in London (2008-2016), he too had an occasional tendency towards clashes. Consider, for instance, his 2011 Today interview in which he undermined David Cameron’s response to the summer riots by suggesting that central government cuts to police funding were to blame. Other examples of Johnson’s record as a “difficult customer” during his mayoralty exist, of course. One might, therefore, expect him to have some sympathy with Burnham’s staunch calls for more funding when faced with an even more significant crisis. However, the Prime Minister has not merely tried to explain his opposition to Burnham's approach by highlighting his responsibility to view the challenges through a whole-nation perspective (though there was some of that evident in his Tuesday night Downing Street press conference). Instead, there has been a consistent raising of the political temperature by briefings, counter-briefings and disputes that have all served to illustrate the disconnect between local and national leadership.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, mayors have consistently raised the need for greater powers (such as over the track-and-trace system) and significant funding increases (particularly concerning social care). Local leaders have been vocal in seeking to shape the critiques of the central government's approach to the crisis, so far. Dan Jarvis (2020), Mayor of the Sheffield City Region (SCR), has described the challenge for future central-local relations thus:
'The greatest danger of coronavirus is in how we respond to it..…The danger [is] that Covid-19 becomes the catalyst for a lost decade of under-investment, growing inequality, and inaction…'.
As I said earlier, these are not new challenges, but the recent dispute between Burnham and Johnson has significantly raised media coverage of them.
But what does this mean for the legitimacy of our leaders? Throughout the past week, the central government has been actively seeking to undermine Burnham's legitimacy on this issue, often accusing him of 'playing politics' during a dangerous pandemic. The ability of this narrative to cut through should not be disregarded. At a coffee shop last week, I overheard a group of people being heavily critical of Burnham's actions and it was notable how much the language they used matched that which Matt Hancock used about the mayor a week ago. However, I live in Kent – it seems likely that Mayor Burnham will be more interested in the judgement of the people of Manchester, rather than Medway. The fact that #KingOfTheNorth became one of Twitter’s top trends on Tuesday (combined with a net positive approval rating, at a time when Johnson's poll ratings are falling), will provide a further boost to Burnham’s profile and sense of affirmed authority.
It is, of course, true that Burnham himself has also contributed to perpetuating this argument, through the use of forceful language. On Tuesday, he condemned the government as ‘brutal' and suggested that they were failing to run the country properly. His anger at the central government could not have been missed. This has allowed him to frame himself as a key figure in the resistance to a seemingly disordered government, underlining his legitimate position as the voice of Manchester. Whilst the question of "Who speaks for England?" continues to be an unresolved issue, there is no doubt about who speaks for Manchester. As George Osborne said today, Burnham’s ability to dominate headlines over the past week illustrates how such mayoral platforms can be used successfully.
Perhaps the longer-term point is about whether this leaves the government’s credibility on “levelling up” badly damaged. Until polling gives us a quantifiable answer on this, it’s hard to reach definite conclusions on this. However, it is probably reasonable to assume that an ongoing spat between a mayor with a strong civic base and a government that has struggled with several weeks-worth of negative headlines is likely to leave the latter with much ground to make up. Combine this perspective with the likelihood that the financial resources for "levelling up" will be scarcer in the years ahead (given the government's commitment to trying to close the crisis-led deficit), and it is apparent that the biggest political challenges lie with the central government.
So, what of the wider implications for centre-local relations? The evidence of the past few days suggests that the central government needs to learn, quickly, to engage more positively in how it constructs messages of cooperation with mayors. Local leaders will naturally always be motivated by a desire to call out heavy-handedness on the part of the central government when it disadvantages their communities. This doesn't, however, need to lead to the kind of confrontations that we've seen recently. Indeed, the unedifying spectacle of the past week rather illustrates the need for a step-change. Yes, the central government must prioritise the whole-nation perspective, by pursuing a balanced approach to the crisis. But this doesn't mean ignoring local realities. It means acknowledging that local leaders are the most in-touch leaders with regards to large local communities. It means using this resource as a means to develop and improve policy. And, yes, it means swallowing a lot of pride (which has been inflated by decades of poor engagement with local leadership) and admitting that sometimes a mayor is a better-placed leader than a prime minister for articulating and addressing concerns. If Johnson fails to take this advice on board, he'll only find himself in a Groundhog Day scenario, with more local leaders prepared to voice concerns and opposition ever more determinedly. Mayors and local council leaders are not going anywhere and they can't be ignored. The Article concluded, regarding Manchester’s mayor, this week: ‘Andy Burnham’s position gives him a megaphone and he is proving very effective at using it.’
Max Stafford is currently Lecturer in British Politics at De Montfort University and a member of the PSA. He researches into political leadership (UK, US and Western Europe), particularly with regard to consideration of new methodologies for approaching leadership assessments. His thesis, entitled 'Strong Mayors' Leadership Capital: New York, London and Amsterdam (2000-2016) was awarded in 2020.' Image credit: Screenshot/Youtube.