Now the poetry is over: how Labour’s metro mayors can govern in prose and begin the job of changing lives

Labour mayors are now in place in both Manchester and Liverpool. The newly elected politicians have an ability to drive forward campaign promises and turn their manifestos into reality for millions of people who rely on public services. As the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, said “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose”.

The Labour mayors, other than Andy Burnham, have limited experience of taking manifesto promises and turning them into deliverable policies and even less experience in the front-line delivery of services. They now lead city regions with combined budgets in hundreds of millions of pounds. The question now is how can they ensure what they promised during the election campaigns become a reality?

Issues like homelessness and economic regeneration received wide-scale coverage during the election period. Now, with great power, comes great responsibility and the mayors have a limited time to make an impact and show how they can improve people’s lives. They must now deliver.

Labour has a proven track record of turning policy into deliverable outcomes in government. From the promises on the pledge card in 1997 to the NHS targets of the early 2000s, Labour understood the need to fulfil the promises they made to the public.  The four-hour A&E waiting time target is a prime example, Labour gripped an under-performing system and drove up standards across the NHS to deliver on the promise of 95 per cent of people waiting under four hours to be seen in A&E by 2004. Labour was clearly able to show that prose is as important as poetry when it comes to governing and delivering for ordinary people across the country.

Mayors across the country must now understand how they will take each of their campaign promises and make them happen. The newly elected mayors will have power over a variety of policy areas from planning, to economic regeneration to transport and in some cases over health and social care. However, without a detailed plan and without priorities, it is unclear how they will deliver the change they have promised.

Turning policy into action was an issue that Labour understood in government and one that they tackled to great effect.  In 2001, Tony Blair established the delivery unit, in essence a small group of people who focussed entirely of seeing through the promises of the 2001 manifesto. These policies ranged from waiting times in the NHS to GCSE results to crime rates and rail punctuality. The delivery unit produced incredible results, including the creation of the 18 week waiting time for operations within the NHS. Led by Michael Barber (a previous Labour councillor, then senior civil servant), the delivery unit ensured a continued focus on reforming and improving public services throughout the period of 2001 – 2005 which in turn lead to a third-term Labour government.

There are some lessons that can be drawn from Labour’s period in government that mayors across the country should use to deliver for their citizens.

  1. Prioritisation – one of the major reasons for the success of Labour’s delivery in government was prioritisation. It is easier said than done to openly admit that you will only prioritise a small number of key policy areas. However, the mayors’ time and resources are finite but public policy problems are infinite. Prioritisation will be key to the success of the newly elected members.
  2. People – The mayors must find the right people to work on their priorities. In order to deliver on their promises they need people who can ensure they understand both the strategy of delivery but also how front-line services can be changed to deliver better for the public. The mayors should look across the public, private and third sectors for dynamic leadership that will be need to drive systemic change.
  3. Politics – In all areas, the mayors will need to work with people from different political parties and with different views to deliver for their city regions. Understanding the need to work with others is vital to ensure delivery. The same is true of working with central government, an effective and productive relationship between the newly elected mayors and central government will be a key ingredient in the success of the regions.

The “three’ P’s” above are some of the key ingredients that are required for delivering policy. Labour’s track record in turning policy into action has stood the test of time and has provided a template for countries across the world. From the US to Indonesia, to Australia, governments have sought to replicate Labour’s achievement. The newly elected mayors have a blue-print for delivery. They should follow it.

Emmet worked for the Labour Party chair and in the policy unit between 2006 and 2008. He is currently a managing consultant with Mutual Ventures which focusses on delivering public service reform.

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