The Road to Challenging Boris Johnson May Start in Manchester

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Wearing a hooded rain jacket over a creased navy shirt, Andy Burnham declared on live television that Manchester would “stand firm” against Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to impose the toughest coronavirus restrictions on the northern English city.

If that defiance last year was the moment that made the political establishment in London sit up and take notice, it’s now been reminded that Johnson has an adversary who may not be easily swatted aside.

Burnham’s landslide re-election as Greater Manchester mayor was one of the few bright spots for Labour in a set of election results that saw Johnson’s Conservatives tighten their grip on the opposition party’s traditional strongholds. Attention is turning to Burnham, 51, as the senior figure who may have the clout to start reviving Labour’s fortunes. 

The Road to Challenging Boris Johnson May Start in Manchester

The northern regions of England are the key political and economic battleground that will define the success of Johnson’s post-Brexit vision to “level up” prosperity across the country, and the ability of his opponents to claw back power.

Under leader Keir Starmer, Labour is facing hard questions about its strategy and direction after the Conservatives proved their 2019 election success in the north wasn’t a one-off. They won a crushing victory in the town of Hartlepool, which had voted Labour ever since the parliamentary district’s creation in 1974.

Starmer’s approval ratings are plummeting, while Burnham is the face of countless memes branding him “King in the North.” He’s made little attempt to dampen speculation that he could run as leader again after his four-year term in Manchester is up. “In the distant future, if the party ever needed me, they should get in touch,” he told Sky News on May 9.

Bookmakers put Burnham as favorite to be next Labour leader, though still a long shot at 50-1 to be the country’s next prime minister. He’s also hardly a fresh face, having spent 16 years as a Labour member of Parliament and holding several ministerial posts before becoming mayor. He lost party leadership elections to Ed Miliband in 2010 and then to Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, coming a distant second with only 19% of the vote.

The Road to Challenging Boris Johnson May Start in Manchester

Yet the focus has turned to who can really challenge Johnson. The government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and messy Brexit divorce failed to create much political capital for Labour, and a stellar vaccination program has led to a gradual reopening of the economy.

In Scotland, a Labour heartland until a decade ago, the Scottish National Party led by Nicola Sturgeon affirmed its domination in the May 6 elections. That’s left the north of England as the place where Labour’s fortunes will be decided.

Starmer, a London-based former human rights lawyer who only became an MP in 2015, has defended himself against claims he lacks the political antennae for the top job. Those fears, though, were heightened when Burnham’s victory and that of London Mayor Sadiq Khan were overshadowed by an internal spat over a change of role for Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner.

Key to Burnham’s success in Manchester, the de facto capital of England’s north, was having a shortlist of priorities that resonated with people, according to Jonathan Tonge, a politics professor at the University of Liverpool.

“If you asked the public what policies Keir Starmer has, people would scratch their heads,” Tonge said. “Burnham has policies which are quite well known across Manchester.”

These include plans to end homelessness and take public transport back under municipal control—seen as vital to many local people after unprofitable bus routes were cut. A recent video on his Twitter page saw Burnham being cheered by commuters singing “There’s only one Andy Burnham!” as he highlighted the cost of transport in the city.

It’s a strategy that has been echoed by the Conservatives’ own campaign. That agenda of channeling funding from the economic dynamo of London and the southeast is even more critical in the wake of the pandemic.

Surges of infections in parts of northern England last autumn saw businesses face more weeks of restrictions than in the affluent south. A recent jump in cases in Bolton, part of Greater Manchester, means a fresh showdown with London could be looming. Ministers have not ruled out imposing local lockdowns while Burnham warned he would have “serious reservations” and advocates instead accelerated vaccinations of younger people.

Labour is now wrestling with a fundamental problem facing many center-left social democrats across Europe: how does a party that has defined itself as being “for the workers” rebrand itself for the modern economy? That dilemma has become more acute after Johnson’s traditionally free-market Conservatives put state spending at the heart of its vision for a post-pandemic Brexit Britain.

The Road to Challenging Boris Johnson May Start in Manchester

Burnham, who grew up in northwest England and speaks with the local accent, is viewed as being on people’s side, an ordinary man that people can relate to. Lucy Powell, Labour MP for Manchester Central, has called him “one of the best political communicators of his generation.” Some of the criticism levelled at Starmer by voters in Hartlepool was that he was too associated with London.

The risk, though, is that Burnham tries to be all things to everyone. During his most recent shot at the Labour leadership, he was accused of alternating personas to win over different wings of the party.

“He has critics,” said Tonge. “There are some people who think he tries to face both ways and everyone leaves the room thinking Andy Burnham supports them and that doesn't always work out.”

Burnham has railed against the “London-centric” policies of national parties since becoming mayor in 2017. He complained that Labour’s powerful mayors have often been invisible when it comes to key decision-making at the top of the party.

London, though, is set for a bit more Burnham. On Tuesday, he was announced as the Evening Standard newspaper’s star columnist. He told Bloomberg it had nothing to do with his own political ambitions, but he wanted to share ideas for change across the country.

Indeed, Burnham’s popularity already extends beyond Manchester, said Chris Curtis, senior research manager at polling company Opinium. “We’ve run polling, and those that know him generally have a favorable view of him,” said Curtis, “which obviously isn’t true of many Labour politicians at the moment.”

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