First, came the announcements. Then the battle for the spoils of victory. With Labour nationally on the brink of a decisive choice of leader, the confirmation of Andy Burnham and Siôn Simon as Labour’s respective candidates for devolved mayoral elections in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands provides a fresh insight into the mood of members outside the Corbyn stronghold of London.
Burnham’s success was expected, but never assured. The memory of last summer’s Labour leadership contest – when he started as favourite before trailing in a poor second – hung over the campaign. This summer, however, his victory was relatively comfortable as he gained more than half of the vote to beat north-west rivals Tony Lloyd and Ivan Lewis.
In the West Midlands, the competition with even more straightforward. Simon, an MEP and former MP, was crowned as candidate after coming in comfortably ahead of former Birmingham councillor Steve Bedser.
Burnham and Simon are likely to go on to claim victory in the election proper – with Burnham in particular a near-certainty to be named the inaugural devolved mayor of Greater Manchester.
Coming just hours after the left of the Labour Party swept the board in the national executive committee (NEC) elections, the selection of two politicians with significant experience under New Labour administrations has prompted much staring into the tea leaves. Burnham, as is well known, served as Health Secretary under Gordon Brown while Simon was a junior minister around the same time.
But the selection races in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands are far removed from the Labour leadership contest which is currently exciting and despairing members around Britain. The contest for the devolved roles were about picking a candidate, and most likely a mayor, who can fulfil a new executive position – albeit a slightly unformed one – in fewer than 12 months’ time. Power, and the chance to seize it, are immediate prospects.
The battle in which Corbyn and Owen Smith are currently engaged could not be more different, however, which is why activists are uncertain what interpretation to put on the selections. The national contest is about picking a candidate for a general election which is not likely to take place for four years and, when it finally does, will pit Labour very much as the second favourite, at least on current trends, as analysed by Electoral Calculus.
The party nationally is engaged in a battle for its future with the bulk of MPs pitted against at the 50-plus per cent of the membership who are sympathetic to Corbyn. It is not so much a battle of ideas – Smith and Corbyn seem to agree on a host of left-wing policies – as of identities and political styles.
Both candidates aim to reshape the British economy if they make it into Downing Street. Yet, in the devolved selections, the offer to members was very different and a bit more pragmatic. Burnham put an emphasis on his time in the Labour government, describing the Manchester mayoralty as a “a cabinet-level job which needs cabinet-level experience” – the very background which counted against him nationally last summer when he was swept away by the Corbyn surge.
Similarly Simon had spent years campaigning for regional devolution and had been interested in the post of Birmingham mayor before local voters rejected the role in a referendum in 2012. His blog is policy-heavy with entries ranging from housing and health and safety at work to fuel poverty and the single market.
If Simon and Burnham are elected as mayors – it is tempting to say “when” – then it will not be a verdict on Corbyn, Smith or even on the prospect of Labour forming a government nationally. Instead it will be a based on local links, name recognition, practical solutions to economic and social problems and the pitiful performance of the Conservatives in Britain’s major industrial cities.
Burnham vowed to remain neutral in the leadership contest and refused to join the ranks of quitters in the “coup” following the EU referendum. Simon’s position seems harder to pin down – he has posed for promotional “Team Siôn” pictures with the incumbent but, as a friend of deputy leader Tom Watson, who has called for Corbyn to go, it seems safe to assume he is a Corbynsceptic.
Each side in the Labour leadership will claim fresh impetus from the devolved contests – but the reality of these regional races is more complex. While Burnham and Simon turn their minds to road-building, Labour stands at an intellectual crossroads.