As the Labour leadership race gathers pace, another party selection process enters its final week.
Labour members in Merseyside, Greater Manchester and a big chunk of the West Midlands are choosing candidates to fight next May’s first-ever ‘metro mayor’ elections.
These powerful new roles will create a cadre of directly-elected civic leaders, with direct personal mandates, who will take charge of economic development, strategic planning and transport in their areas. The Greater Manchester package also includes the £6 billon health and social care budget for the city-region.
Given the three conurbations are each strongly Labour, the party’s selection process will, in all likelihood, choose who becomes the eventual mayor in each area.
In Merseyside, the contest is a race between Liverpool’s directly-elected city mayor, Joe Anderson, and Liverpool Walton MP (and Jeremy Corbyn’s parliamentary private secretary) Steve Rotheram. Anderson, a powerhouse local government veteran who is well-regarded in Whitehall, is pitching himself as the candidate with a clear plan and a record of delivery and job creation.
Rotheram, a former councillor before he became an MP is pledging to ‘leave no borough behind’ in what may be a smart appeal to provincial insecurity, as large towns and peripheral boroughs become support acts for their neighbouring cities. (Indeed, this may play out as a factor in all three races).
Both sides claim they have the numbers to win, with most of the party’s local establishment breaking for Anderson. Also in the frame is Liverpool Wavertree MP, Luciana Berger, the former shadow minister for mental health.
Her campaign has attracted a few sniggers from the others as one of her key pledges is to make Liverpool ‘more beautiful’ rather than focusing on the specifics of the role.
Twenty minutes down the M62 and another trio are vying for the Greater Manchester role. Shadow Home Secretary and MP for Leigh, Andy Burnham, is pitted against former minister and Bury South MP, Ivan Lewis and former Manchester MP and current interim GM mayor, Tony Lloyd.
The race is hard to assess, with Lloyd attracting local party bosses and trade unions, but Burnham, a late entrant to the race, working the membership hard.
In the middle is Lewis, who is surprising many with a spirited campaign focusing on reducing inequality. His effective ground campaign may determine the outcome although he is unlikely to win. Will Burnham’s national profile outshine Lloyd’s grassroots’ activist support? Four of the nine Labour council leaders are supporting Lloyd, with two backing Lewis and one opting for Burnham.
It might come down to turnout, with Burnham benefitting the higher it goes. However given ballot papers went out late and we’re now in the middle of the holiday season, there are too many variables to call it for either Lloyd or Burnham.
Easier to read is the battle for the Greater Birmingham role, which is a straight contest between former Birmingham Erdington MP, Sion Simon, and former City Councillor Steve Bedser.
Simon quit Westminster in 2010 after serving as a minister in the last Labour Government in order to devote his time to campaigning for a Birmingham city mayor. Despite strong support among Brum’s political, media and business elite, a referendum in the city in 2012 scuppered the idea.
Now an MEP for the West Midlands, Simon has continued to be a driving force campaigning for Labour to embrace the cause of devolving power.
Bedser, a former Birmingham city councillor and social care chief, is running on his local government experience and is explicitly backing Jeremy Corbyn for leader.
Indeed, one of the features of these contests is that they have avoided becoming proxies for the leadership battle, partly because Jeremy Corbyn has been wise enough to stay out and let the locals decide and partly because the early membership freeze date excluded many Corbynistas.
However come next May. Labour – and perhaps British politics – will have a new centre of power, with a trio of metro mayors, each with direct mandates, making their presence known. Down the line, they will be joined by another wave covering Sheffield, Tees Valley and the North East.
As the prospect of a Labour government anytime in the next decade continues to look remote, metro mayors will have to be the next best thing.