For the Conservatives, it was a win-win proposal. They would offer the red wall’s Labour councils a deal they couldn’t afford to refuse having faced funding issues for a decade: a mild injection of funding, in return for a new, devolved “metro” elected mayor, who would be responsible for several local authorities.
I say it was a win-win proposal for the Conservatives because, as seductive as it may have appeared, the Labour Party were set to lose either way. If Labour councils said no to a devolved mayoral system, voters would perceive them as opposing generous offers of funding from central government. But if Labour councils said yes, they would be faced with a mayoral election battle the Conservatives might well win.
This is because Conservatives have always excelled at individual personality politics in a way the Labour Party never has – Boris Johnson, our blundering prime minister and former mayor of London, is testament to that. Mayoral elections play to the strengths of individual personalities, not the principled ideologues of the left.
Which is why mayoral electoral contests in local authorities were, pre-Brexit, one way the Conservative Party could gain footholds in the Labour heartlands. Northern councils may be dominated by Labour incumbents, but metro mayor elections were up for grabs. And if Labour were to win a metro mayoral seat, central government could then pass the buck for austerity measures to the Labour mayor. “We gave you a little more money, and a lot more power – so why haven’t you fixed your problems?” would go the cry.
Heated debate about whether Labour councils could afford to sacrifice funding to maintain political leverage has been happening all over the country, albeit behind closed doors. It happened in my local authority, North Tyneside, around two years ago.
However, much of the media, obsessed as it is with Westminster, barely passed comment – perhaps because the word devolution understandably sends many to sleep. And even for those still awake and inspired, the mayoral system is not, in practice, the hyper-local representative democracy we might hope for. Placing so much power in the hands of one person, and not a council or elected body with many representatives, is far from the decentralised model most have in mind when we think of devolution.
If the press was not previously interested in devolution, it is now. Because this devolved system – which I personally would characterise as a catch-22 con-trick – relied on local issues staying, well, local. Devolved mayoral systems aid the Conservatives only if local mayors deal with issues locally, and not if they start to question the actions of the central Conservative government. The system caves in as soon as local devolved representatives start to ask for extra assistance, funding or explanations from central government.
The very reason the Conservatives backed mayoral systems is that they never thought they would create an Andy Burnham. The Manchester mayor’s demands for financial support, after countless low-income residents have been forced into three months of lockdown other geographical areas have not endured, are not unreasonable. He asks the questions any representative should.
On Sunday’s Andrew Marr show, he asked why the prime minister viewed Manchester as a problem Covid area when intensive care cases are only a quarter of those seen there in April, at the height of the first peak. He wanted to know why households now receive only two thirds of their wage as part of the furlough scheme, when they would have received 80 per cent during the first wave. He wanted to know why the skepticism of the chief scientific officer on the three-tier system has been ignored. Boris Johnson has said Burnham will be responsible for deaths if tier 3 lockdown rules are not followed in Manchester and has threatened to overrule Burnham over lockdown measures.
The Conservatives’ repeated attempts to micromanage the mayor, who clearly only seeks to represent residents suffering as a direct result of central government’s policy decisions, lay bare their disingenuousness with regards to devolution. The same party that proposed and supported devolution on the grounds of improved democracy and local representation have now decided to pick a fight with any devolved mayor who won’t play ball with central government.
Get with the programme, they imply, or devolved mayors will see the prime minister take action against them. What they created wasn’t the federal model sold in the brochures, but a failed attempt at feudalism. And the serfs are getting uppity.
If the moves towards devolved government had genuinely stemmed from a desire to improve local representation, the Conservatives wouldn’t be threatening the Manchester mayor with ultimatums in the national press – they'd be taking his calls and working with him. And right-wing pundits wouldn’t be furiously labelling Burnham’s representation of local residents as “playing politics”. They would be pleased that devolution was doing exactly as the Conservatives originally advertised: handing power to the people when they couldn’t need it more. It’s what they promised back in those local government meetings, after all.
I sat in those meetings. And, unfortunately for some, no number of Sunday Times think pieces or government ultimatums will make me forget.
Frances Weetman is an independent councillor for North Tyneside and author of ‘Whose Model Is It Anyway?: Why Economists Need to Face Up to Reality’