“Canaries in a coalmine” was the phrase Andy Burnham used in criticising the government’s plans to put Greater Manchester into Tier 3 of the COVID-19 restriction system, without additional financial aid. The Liverpool-born Mayor for Greater Manchester snatched national headlines, as he took the fight to the government, demanding more financial support for areas facing these heightened COVID-19 restrictions.
The sight of a northern leader, discussing northern issues, focused on a northern context, was refreshing for a polity which is often validly accused of being London-centric. Despite plans to move the House of Lords to York and the efforts of the media and broadcasters to build a presence in the north, British politics still seems to revolve around events in London, viewing national issues through this narrow-focused lens.
Burnham dominating the news: his speeches and press conferences being live-broadcasted to millions, and the national conversation he has sparked, have flown in the face of the political norm. Manchester and local northern political issues have made the mainstream news, dominating front pages and headlines for days on end. It seems that Andy Burnham and his passionate, blunt rhetoric have finally given the north the voice in national politics that it desperately needs.
In the past few months, particularly since the 2019 general election in particular, conversation around the north has revolved around the so-called ‘red wall’, which ‘crumbled’ as Labour lost its traditional northern heartlands. National coverage and commentary reduced ‘the north’ to a homogenous, post-industrial, insular area, creating a simplistic image of the varied and diverse constituencies that Labour suffered alarming defeats in back in December. Burnham has, however, brought attention to the depth and richness of politics in the north of England.
In a speech that has rapidly become iconic, Burnham, standing outside Manchester’s famous Central Library, blasted the government for asking the region “to gamble our residents, jobs, home and businesses and a large chunk of the economy.” Burnham cleverly discussed Greater Manchester in relation to the national political landscape, centering the risks to the region’s economy, should no further economic assistance be provided, in the picture of the national economy. Greater Manchester and its buzzing,mixed economy make the region one of the most economically influential and significant in the UK, as well as one of the fastest developing cities in Europe. Burnham has refused to let Manchester’s national significance drop from the overall agenda.
Tier 3 mandates the closure of pubs and bars, a ban on the mixing of households – indoor and outdoors – and residents are also advised to avoid all non-essential travel inside and outside of the area, all of which could significantly hit the region’s economy. Burnham described himself as angered by the government’s insistence to risk the regional economy by implementing these measures, given that the government’s “own experts” have advised that the strategy “might not work”. The now-famous “canaries in a coalmine” metaphor was used to criticise the government’s plans for “an experimental regional lockdown strategy”.
Not only would the region’s commercial and profitable nighttime economy be severely hit by the imposition of Tier 3 restrictions with no further assistance, but the economic downturn across the whole area would also hit the most disadvantaged. Whilst also being home to a growing, bright economy, Manchester and the surrounding boroughs comprising Greater Manchester, have one of the highest rates of child poverty. A report by Manchester City Council noted that a disturbing 35.5% of children under the age of 16 live in poverty in Manchester, underlining the desperate situation that Greater Manchester is already in- one that will likely have worsened over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and will deteriorate as further restrictions are imposed on the region with no additional financial aid. As Burnham said: “it is wrong for the government to place some of the poorest parts of England in a punishing lockdown without proper support”, showing his commitment to speak up for all parts of Greater Manchester society and his genuine concerns with the government’s new measures.
Over the course of several days, Burnham locked horns with central government, in attempt to secure more financial assistance for the north. The former health-secretary and two-time candidate for Labour leader faced off with representatives of Number Ten, earning himself the nick-name the ‘King of the North’ and spawning hundreds of Game of Thrones-inspired memes. Greater Manchester only entered into Tier 3 restrictions after being forced into them by central government, the negotiations resulting in no settlement. Local leaders failed to meet a deadline, as set by London, to agree a support package, resulting in the region entering Tier 3 against a backdrop of dismay and protest by local leaders, with Burnham at the forefront.
The appeal of Burnham lies in his willingness and boldness in standing up to the chaotic Conservative government in London. He has been well received across the country, with praise for him drifting across all regions of England and the UK. His message that the Greater Manchester region would not be overlooked and manipulated by the government gave voice to areas across the country that are also in a difficult position, their economic landscape worsening as the ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 takes hold.
Burnham’s message has a pointed local significance though, given that he is mayor for several areas that shed their generations-old Labour support for Conservative blue at the 2019 election, Burnham. His attacks have highlighted how insincere the promises to “level up” from a few months ago are, as thousands of families face insecurity and difficulties. Though admittedly on the more right wing of the party, his commitment to working families within his constituency is clear.
The manner by which Burnham has conducted his opposition to the government has added to his popularity and strength. The public press conferences and damning live statements reveal the strength and potential of local government, in providing coherent and organised opposition to Number ten. Declaring that the new restrictions were “flawed and unfair”, he provided a refined alternative to Boris Johnson’s regular incoherent mumbling; an alternative that even arguably overshadows Keir Starmer, who’s media coverage often seems limited at best. Through clever management of the issue (his control of the situation only slipping when the government announced the midday deadline to agree a deal) and effective use of the media – local and national Burnham managed to embarrass the government in a way Starmer has seemed unable to.
Interestingly, Burnham ‘loss’ to the Tories, with Greater Manchester being forced into Tier 3, did not play as a ‘loss’, but rather as an act of Tory tyranny. This is doubtless because of the clever use of messaging Burnham had built up in the days before; his opposition was clear and unwavering, so that even when Greater Manchester had to concede and was forced into Tier 3, the situation did not play badly for him but for the out-of-touch central government who forced the situation.
Some cynics have drawn attention to the mayoral elections due in 2021, after being postponed due to the pandemic. The boost he has experienced in popularity will likely shore up his control over the office, which he won in 2017 with 63% of the vote. Others have drawn attention to the possibility that this is a platform from which he can launch his return to national politics. Indeed in telling Andrew Marr, “this was not just Greater Manchester’s fight”, Burnham has been able to widen his advocacy up to areas across the UK, positioning himself as a strong national leader, speaking up for those beyond the Greater Manchester region. Both of these motives are likely, but Burnham still deserves praise for speaking up for an often-overlooked region and winning support from across the Labour Party for his strong, unwavering opposition, something, which has undoubtedly been lacking of late.
Though Burnham still remains an ideologically divisive and unpalatable figure to many Labour members, his has given voice to one of the UK’s most vibrant and diverse regions. In opposing not the idea of a lockdown, but a lockdown imposed from “200 miles away” with no extra support, Burnham has captured and highlighted to the highly localised nature of this difficult national issue. The government’s simplistic approach will not work; Andy Burnham has shown that a detailed local understanding and empathy is needed, which cannot be forged from miles away in London.