Devolution and identity in Greater Manchester

George Morris

Labour members in Greater Manchester have chosen their candidate for the first mayoral election in the city region. Andy Burnham, currently the Shadow Home Secretary and a former Health Secretary, will soon be leaving what he constantly refers to as ‘the Westminster bubble’ to fight for the newly devolved powers of a newly created mayoralty.

There were three candidates for the nomination. Ivan Lewis, MP for Bury South, ran a campaign focussed on tackling inequality and bringing ordinary people into the political process, but it never really got off the ground and in the final results he languished in third place at 19.8 per cent.

Most people saw the race as effectively being between Burnham and Tony Lloyd. Lloyd, an MP from 1983 to 2012, when he stepped down to become Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner, is technically the incumbent, having been made interim mayor on the basis that the role of PCC would eventually be incorporated within the mayoralty. Lloyd is known as a local man, and made much throughout the campaign of his deep knowledge of the area. Popular with Labour councillors, and with the backing of the trade unions, he could often seem oddly like the establishment candidate, despite Burnham’s Westminster credentials.

Political commentators, mostly stuck within the ‘Westminster bubble’, have been keen to analyse the result in terms of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. An ally of the leader claimed that the result shows that there is ‘a new power in the land’, according to the political editor of the New Statesman, George Eaton. In truth, there was no single direction in which a person’s view of Corbyn was likely to take them. On the phones, some Labour members said that they wouldn’t vote for Burnham because they backed Corbyn and didn’t want to take one of his loyal shadow cabinet members away from him. Others said that they would vote Burnham in order to take a supporter away from Corbyn. Some wanted to reward Burnham for his loyalty to the leader. Others wanted him to stay in Westminster to run to be leader for a third time. It seems likely that a combination of name recognition and government experience won it for Burnham, rather than the Corbyn phenomenon that supposedly explains everything nowadays.


Despite what you may have read, Burnham is not running to be Mayor of Manchester; it’s Greater Manchester, and there’s a difference. The city of Manchester, with a population of over half a million, is just one of ten districts of Greater Manchester, which has a population of around 2.7 million. Burnham’s campaign emphasised his desire to be a mayor for all ten boroughs, and he appears to have had strong support in his own borough of Wigan.

Greater Manchester is overwhelmingly Labour. Of the twenty-seven constituencies in the metropolitan county, twenty-two are held by Labour, and the remaining five by Tories, two of whom have majorities of less than a thousand.1 Labour dominates the borough and city councils. Manchester City Council, for example, is a virtual one-party state in which the only opposition representation comes from a single Lib Dem. In Stockport there is no overall control, the Lib Dems having lost their majority in the 2016 local elections. Labour have twenty-one seats, just behind the Lib Dems on twenty-three. Only in Trafford do the Tories control a council.

As a result, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has ten Labour members and just one Tory. The combined authority is indirectly elected, consisting of the mayor and councillors from the ten boroughs. The contrast with the directly elected 106 member-strong Greater Manchester County Council, which existed from the formation of Greater Manchester in 1974 to its abolition by the Thatcher government in 1986, is notable, but the GMCA is likely to continue to be as Labour-dominated as the old GMC.

Politics, clearly, is different in Greater Manchester. The city region provides an interesting case for anybody considering how a sense of place, past and patriotism can form part of a progressive narrative. Its main squares are home to statues of nineteenth century liberals and industrialists, soon to be joined, after she won a public poll in which other contenders included Ellen Wilkinson and Margaret Ashton, by Emmeline Pankhurst, born in Moss Side in 1858. The memory and imagery of Peterloo lives on. At the Central Library, the foundation stone of which was laid by Ramsay MacDonald in 1930, there are images of industry and terraced streets on the stacks. At the People’s History Museum, just down the road, you can take a tour of Britain’s past from the perspective of the working class and the labour movement. Manchester’s civic identity is clearly on the left.

It’s a place that sees itself as industrious and innovative, as proud of its contributions to British culture as it is of its contributions to industry, technology and politics. Burnham has said that he wants to make the city region the cultural capital of Britain again.

Many people feel that Burnham overdoes the boy from the North routine. Cultural differences between North and South are as easy to exaggerate as they are to underestimate. But in the thinking about Englishness and patriotism that the left has tasked itself with doing, we’d do well to remember that there are multiple Englands and multiple Englishnesses. Manchester is a pretty good place to look to for inspiration.


The deal signed between the GMCA and George Osborne was basically one that offered more power to Greater Manchester in return for the city region accepting a directly elected mayor. As a result, GMCA has responsibility under the new deal for the Apprenticeship Grant, for devolved business support budgets and for the ‘Working Well’ pilot. It has ‘an opportunity’ to partner with the DWP to implement the next phase of the Work Programme. But perhaps most importantly, it will be able to develop a plan for integrated health and social care across Greater Manchester.

Just last year, Burnham was publicly opposed to devolution of public health, describing his ‘real misgivings’ about ‘back of an envelope’ proposals. But he has also been a long-term advocate of a more joined-up NHS, integrating health and social care within a single system. Offered a chance to develop such a policy in practice, it seems Burnham has got over his ‘misgivings’. If he pulls off the implementation of these reforms, the embarrassment of the u-turn will be worth it. After all, there are very good arguments for health and social care being devolved to local communities, as Jessica Studdert argued in the last issue of Renewal.2

The mayor’s powers will largely be over transport, housing, policing and planning. The transport budget is to be devolved. A new Housing Investment Fund has been created and handed to the mayor. The mayor will have all the powers of the current Police and Crime Commissioner, and will have powers – subject to unanimous cabinet approval – over strategic planning. There is also the prospect, indicated in the deal, of further devolution of powers over time. Burnham and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, have called for the devolution of powers from the DWP, as was advocated by a recent IPPR report.3

Still, Burnham will face enormous challenges. The black hole in the devolved budget means that rather than building the People’s Republic of Manchester, Burnham will spend much of his time embroiled in budgetary bust-ups with central government, and may well end up being the Labour face of cutbacks forced upon him by the Tories. He will also need to work hard to persuade a public generally hostile to increasing the number of politicians and sceptical of the benefits of elected metro-mayors that devolution is a good idea. This is, as many Mancunians realise, devolution on Tory terms. The party that smashed the power of local government as part of its anti-socialist crusade in the eighties is hardly likely to hand extensive power to Labour without imposing caveats, especially given the efforts they have gone to since 2010 to reorder the political landscape in their favour.


Burnham clearly sees the poisoned chalice as half full. He’s committed, it seems, to providing some content to the rather vague idea of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, regardless of the fact that it is now out of favour with the new government. George Osborne, now sacked, is described by many commentators as genuinely committed to the idea; it seems that Osborne shows affection for something he loves by saying its name a lot and depriving it of money. Theresa May’s industrial strategy looks set to be focussed more broadly than a Greater Manchester-oriented Northern Powerhouse. Nobody in the general public uses the phrase without irony – the satirical website The Daily Mash reported the death of the last man to have done so in March.4

Nonetheless, ‘Devo Manc’ opens up opportunities for the left – indeed, it was the power it gave to Labour, and its more militant wing, that led to Thatcher’s war on local government in the eighties. Labour needs to make the case more strongly for metro-devolution, not as an alternative to a national strategy, but as an accompaniment to it. At a time in which Labour looks set to be out of power for many years, when it has a problem – as Jonathan Ashworth and Josh Simons argue in a forthcoming issue of Renewal​5 – being trusted with the economy by the electorate, and while its strength in the North of England appears to be under threat, metro-devolution offers a chance to wield power, to demonstrate how a progressive agenda can be practically carried out, and to stand up for the North.

George Morris is a commissioning editor for Renewal.

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1 Chris Green, in Bolton West, has a majority of 801, while David Nuttall of Bury North has a majority of 378.

2 Studdert, Jessica. ‘Place-based health: why local accountability would lead to better quality and outcomes’, Renewal 24:2, pp.79-83

3 Davies, Bill and Raikes, Luke, Welfare Earnback: an invest-to-save approach to designing the new Work and Health Programme (IPPR, July 2016)


5 Ashworth, Jonathan and Simons, Josh, ‘What is economic trust in politics? A strategy for Labour.’ Renewal 24:3, forthcoming.