Andy Burnham, the frontrunner to succeed Sir Keir Starmer as UK Labour leader, says he and other elected mayors have shown how the party can retake its former heartlands.
Voting figures from his re-election as mayor of Greater Manchester last month, analysed constituency by constituency, showed that Burnham triumphed by a large margin in seats Labour lost in 2019.
Burnham, dubbed ‘king of the north’, told the Financial Times that delivering improvements to people’s lives could win back white working class people who deserted the party in the so-called red wall across England’s north and Midlands, helping to deliver the Conservative party its general election triumph.
“We won every red wall ward in Greater Manchester,” he said. Mayors can “reconnect with people who have not been hearing Labour recently”. He said mayors such as Tracy Brabin, newly elected in West Yorkshire, and Steve Rotheram in Liverpool would work on a joint agenda.
“It is about common issues around reform of buses, [better] public transport, good employment, retrofitting homes to reduce bills and carbon emissions. Policies that are very real to people. This is the way to do it in my view.”
Data compiled by Burnham’s office show that he won all 27 Westminster constituencies in the conurbation, albeit with about half the turnout, 34.7 per cent.
In 2019 the Conservatives won nine seats, up from five in 2017. They included Burnham’s former seat of Leigh. But the analysis shows as mayor he won there with 67.9 per cent. His smallest winning margin was 57:32 in Bury North.
Overall Burnham won 67.3 per cent of the vote on May 6, against 48.1 per cent for Labour in 2019. The Conservatives fell to 17.8 per cent from 34.9 per cent.
Labour has lost support after its opposition to Brexit and struggled to connect with patriotic voters with traditional values. Burnham voted to remain in the EU at the 2016 Brexit referendum but has made it clear he accepts the UK has left the bloc. He has also stayed out of “culture wars”, eschewing gestures such as publicly taking a knee or appearing with the union jack.
Starmer has come under pressure after losing Hartlepool in north-east England in a May 6 by-election, leading to speculation about whether Burnham would challenge him.
He has said he will see out his four-year term as mayor of Greater Manchester and only stand for the leadership a third time if asked by the party. Burnham said he believed Labour had a “reasonable chance” of winning the Batley and Spen by-election, another red wall seat, on July 1.
Burnham’s relationship with Boris Johnson soured after he unsuccessfully resisted his plan to lock down Manchester last year and he said he wanted to “reset” relations with the prime minister.
The Conservative government has lavished funding on areas that voted Tory, especially red wall towns, since the election, cutting out big cities.
Burnham has appointed Chris Boardman, the former Olympic cyclist, as his transport commissioner to deal with Downing Street. Boardman will try to win government financial support to reduce bus prices and build more cycle lanes.
“I want him to be in a position to lead discussions with the government, to move beyond the debates of last year,” Burnham said.
He called for more financial and legal support for his plan for London-style bus franchising from 2023 — which is being challenged in the courts by bus companies.
“If you create a London-style public transport system in a city region the size of Greater Manchester you lay the foundations for a more productive economy and you connect our 2.8m residents. That is levelling up. If you have bus fares of £1.50 it would make a massive difference to people’s income and people’s lives. It would make levelling up meaningful.
“If you do that across 10 boroughs, some red wall and some not, it means levelling up does not become divisive and highly politicised where you have the government favouring towns because of their political leanings. It becomes a unifying exercise not a divisive one.”