by Jimmy Nicholls
Thursday, 15
April 2021
Spotted
17:30

Careful Andy Burnham, sniping at Westminster won’t work

Scoring cheap political points will only undermine the devolution project
by Jimmy Nicholls
King of the North. Credit: Getty

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.

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.

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Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

All I remember of Butcher Burnham is that he wanted to hush up the 1,000-odd deaths from neglect at Staffordshire Royal Infirmary because making it public might upset the staff.
Labour to the bone.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

That’s not quite what happened. He he appointed Robert Francis to begin an inquiry six weeks after taking office as Health Secretary in 2009. Some said he should have launched a full public inquiry instead – much as people are now calling for a wider enquiry into current government sleaze – but sadly it’s not in the nature of governments, then or now, to launch broad inquiries into what happened on their watch.
Presumably you agree with me that more openness is a good thing? And you’d oppose any attempt to restrict freedom of information requests? And you’d welcome thorough investigations into lobbying scandals and the suitability of the current rules – or even (so we do better next time) into how we could have handled Covid better?

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul N
Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

Hopefully Chilcott or Hutton are are available.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Goodman

At least it won’t be Widgery.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Goodman

Only if you want the enquiry to last the best part of a decade.

Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

By the standards of Labour he has done pretty well by not having been arrested like his colleagues in Liverpool, Leicester East and Poplar and Limehouse.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul Goodman
Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 year ago

I would be in favour of more money and power going to local authorities, IF they were actually competent. Every dealing I have had with local authorities and those I know who have gone to work for them (normally not for very long), having left a real job, convinces me that they are all paid way beyond their true competence to deliver the responsibilities they currently have.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

If by “paid way beyond their true competence to deliver the responsibilities they currently have” you mean overpaid and underperforming, you probably have a point at the higher echelons – lower grades are not so overpaid.
Sadly, this applies in the private sector too – see, for example, Serco Test and Trace, and (in the heady pre-brexit days) the shipping firm with no ships which was awarded (then stripped of) a fat contract.
Actually, when it came to Covid, the parts of the response which worked best seemed to be the parts under local control. Maybe centralisation, rather than local authorities and the public sector, is the problem.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

The bits that worked relatively well were the bits supported by the Armed Forces, though even they screwed up on developing the initial Track and Trace app.
I am not advocating a military takeover though. A programme of local government competence development with a transition of power when ready could be a massive improvement on what I agree is massively over centralised (and not all that competent either) government.
It is not about money, competent people have gone to work there in the middle echelons and leave in despair not too long afterwards.

Last edited 1 year ago by Adrian Smith
Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

There’s a reason why things generally work better when the army gets involved. Armies are used to getting things done in a hurry. There’s an obvious command structure & they put able people into logistics who can organise stuff

Generally in local government those roles are being performed by people who’ve been hiding in a cosy job for years, just keeping it ticking over.

When a crisis happens they’re simply not up to the job.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

Its scale. Human beings only scale so far and then can’t cope. Its a bit like all those web sites that crash because to many people are trying to get on. Worked perfectly well with fewer trying to access it.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul N

I agree, we are a massively over centralised country.
Sometimes you also have to give room for organisations to “horror, horror” “postcode lottery” etc etc actually carry out independent local policies. And and even make mistakes, rather than crucify people, sack some sacrificial lambs etc. The quid pro quo being of course that these mistakes should be admitted, not covered up, and the course corrected.

If not all local authorities are doing the same thing, we can learn lessons much faster. (This should also, by the way mean getting rid of national pay scales, which make no economic or incentivisation sense). A bit similar to nation states. Why do so many people think a world government would be competent and benign?!

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

They are usually significantly better at working within their budgets than national government is, as the years of ‘austerity’ showed.

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
1 year ago

Well look, it is incontrovertibly the case that England is stiflingly centralized and governed from Westminster, with overly tight control of all purse strings. We can’t set our own budgets and tax raising powers, responsible only to our electors. We can’t even refuse planning permission for inconvenient buildings without the corporate constructor in question appealing to Westmnster – Jenrick or whoever – and getting the local decision overturned. We have a blue and white elephant across the street on the back of one such recent decision.

Andy Burnham has a legitimate beef.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago

Your comment would apply equally to any government at whatever level. As an example the Scottish government will allow windfarm development that’s been turned down by local and regional government.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago

It’s legitimate to argue for changes in the law (on Cannabis or any other issue), and it seems self-evident that politicians in Westminster say and vote for things they don’t fully agree with. I’m not sure that either of those things necessarily constitute “sniping” or “grandstanding”.