Scoring cheap political points will only undermine the devolution project
At least viewed from London, it looks like Andy Burnham had a decent pandemic. The Greater Manchester mayor made national headlines in his dispute with the government over financial support for the city as it faced a Tier 3 lockdown last October. For a moment he really did look like a King of the North.
Though some disputes between local and central government are inevitable, the squabble validated long-standing complaints about Westminster’s grudging attitude to devolution. While local authorities abroad enjoy generous tax-raising powers, central government in the UK collects and distributes much of the money itself, and has a similar attitude to other governmental powers.
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Yet recent evidence shows that some local figureheads are sporting their own grudges. With his re-election in the offing this May, Burnham told the Manchester Evening News that time spent in Westminster gradually “makes a fraud out of you” by forcing politicians to say and vote for things they don’t fully agree with.
“That’s the way it works, the party works,” he said. “And I think it erodes that connection people have with politicians, because they see someone on the media and they think, ‘Does this person really believe it?’”
Burnham’s last great stint on the national stage saw him thrashed by Jeremy Corbyn in Labour’s leadership election in 2015. That loss and the years spent running Greater Manchester have clearly focused his mind on the public’s appetite for authenticity, which is often left unsatisfied by the horse trading of party politics.
The latter is something Burnham said he would change if he ever returned to Westminster. Although he “can’t see it happening”, he added that if the party came begging for his leadership in a decade then “of course I would respond to that.”
I suspect Labour colleagues in Westminster are unlikely to urge Burnham to return given the implication that they are partisan phoneys. And unfortunately the spectacle of local politicians thumbing their noses at Westminster occurs elsewhere in the UK too.
Scottish nationalists have long exploited the Holyrood parliament to claim that Westminster cannot represent Scotland adequately, with first minister Nicola Sturgeon making seemingly arbitrary deviations on pandemic policy to reinforce the message. For those seeking to split the UK, such behaviour is at least understandable.
The logic is less obvious in the behaviour of mayors like Andy Burnham or Sadiq Khan, who is planning a commission to examine decriminalising cannabis. This move has served mostly to annoy Westminster and generate publicity for Khan, whose role lacks the power to even legalise weed.
Politicians will always be able to make political capital by setting themselves against officials from elsewhere. But grandstanding at Westminster’s expense, be it Khan or Burnham, could well hurt them later on.
Even if it doesn’t, such comments engender disrespect for other levels of government and deter the centre from devolving power to the regions. Local politicians should refrain from such sniping, whatever their career ambitions.