Theresa May’s contention that the 2017 General Election is the ‘most important election in her lifetime’ is probably right, but let us not forget the significance of six newly elected English metro mayors and what the local elections told us. While they may have been overlooked by many people, the new mayors have a big chance to make a difference to the 10 million people they represent.
The prime minister’s obsession with Brexit has meant the government’s approach to devolution has been lukewarm. Indeed, Philip Hammond, in his efforts to prove Osbornian economics is dead, has let it slip from his vocabulary almost entirely.
However, the impressive metro mayoral results for the Conservatives mean the prime minister will no longer be able to dismiss devolution; rather she needs to embrace it and see it as an opportunity to deliver. Her mantra of ‘taking back control’ should not be forgotten. As we debated at the recent DevoConnect Soirée with MJ Editor Heather Jameson, the drive toward more devolution will see greater localism, and, in turn, more engagement in local democracy.
The scale of the challenge metro mayors face should not be underestimated. The second annual Inclusive Growth Monitor found that the Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley and large parts of the West Midlands experienced some of the lowest levels of prosperity and economic inclusion of all the 39 local enterprise partnerships in England. Addressing these regional inequalities needs to be a prominent priority for the new mayors as well as the new prime minister after 8 June.
If the new mayors are to succeed, they should collectively demand greater powers and resource from Whitehall. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram have already sought to do so in relation to rail investment. Continued collaboration will allow the new mayors to build regional political voices to challenge Westminster.
They also need to show they can make a difference locally if they are to win over cynical or disengaged voters. Andy Burnham’s and Andy Street’s decision to focus on street homelessness in their first week in office, a growing public concern in Manchester and Birmingham, demonstrates their recognition of the need to deliver on local issues.
London, with Ken, Boris and Sadiq charting a rise of turnout from 34% in 2000 to 45% last year, demonstrates the impact this personalisation of politics can have. They need to be champions for their cities, setting the agenda and going beyond their ‘hard’ powers. If we do wake up to a majority Conservative Government on 9 June, the new metro mayors should seize this moment to carve a new space in British politics.
Labour’s Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham must build a functioning relationship with the prime minister and communities secretary, while their Conservative counterparts must be willing to push their party in Westminster for more powers. Further devolution should not be viewed as more work for Whitehall but as a means of freeing civil servants to deal with Brexit with metro mayors and local politicians able to put their greater local expertise to use.
Britain needs an ambitious agenda in a post-Brexit, devolved nation. It’s time for the mayors to deliver it.
This article was originally published in The MJ and can be found here.