By Thomas Judge
THE Conservative party won the last election by absorbing the forward momentum of the two dominant populist movements: Brexit and Corbynism.
By fully supporting Brexit, and a more ideologically pure version of Brexit, the party fully incorporated the now decades-old movement whipped up by those on the far-right. But something it did a lot more subtly and has continued to do since getting into government is absorb the left populism first advanced by Corbyn.
By promising investment, more hospitals, nurses and police, they captured the essence of the insurgent Labour movement.
As I previously argued, devoid of ideas, the Conservative party is heavily borrowing from – and has a history of doing so – the Left in terms of policy.
But with policy no longer being developed at the top of the Labour Party, the government seems to be looking elsewhere for inspiration.
Tee Valley Mayor
Capturing left ideas has already proved to be a winning formula for Conservatives. The Conservative Mayor for the Tees Valley Ben Houchen won the Mayoralty first in 2017, a shock victory when Labour was polling very poorly.
Off the back of this shocking victory (winning 51.1 per cent of the vote in the second round), he took the local airport into public ownership and championed investment into the area.
Typically, if you said a politician had done these things, you’d assume they were left leaning.
This approach led to Houchen winning re-election with a massive 72.8 per cent of the vote in 2021.
It also seems partly responsible for the Conservatives gaining Hartlepool in a by-election, winning the constituency for the first time in decades, particularly impressive for an incumbent government to pull off.
The Conservatives have adopted this approach to politics on a national scale. But a new dimension to this seems to have emerged recently.
While Corbyn’s left populism is what Tories emulated in terms of policy for some time, they now seem to have moved on, but it’s not the current Leader of the Opposition they emulate; instead, they look to the so-called King in the North Andy Burnham.
Rishi Sunak’s October 2021 budget announced £7 billion of investment in transport in infrastructure outside of London.
Around £5.7 billion goes on sustainable transport, while a further £1.2 billion specifically goes on busses.
Buses have been repeatedly moved up the agenda by figures on the left, first by Corbyn, whom MPs laughed at for bringing up the issue at PMQs, and now championed by Burnham, who has made the case his own.
Perhaps because they are actually in power, but in many ways, Burnham, and the Metro Mayors in general, seem to be the only arm of the Labour Party advancing any kind of policy agenda. And it has proved popular, Burnham has made a name for himself advocating Greater Manchester have a London style transport system. The Conservative party has noticed this popularity.
He also gained a lot of public notoriety at the height of the winter Coronavirus peak. When the government demanded that more localities go into lockdown – before the reintroduction of the national lockdown – Burnham demanded more support for his city, standing in solidarity with other Mayors and local leaders.
It provided a powerful image to the public, one that continues to be associated with him in a positive way, and led many to question the actual Labour leaders’ performance.
This kind of focus on localism is something the Tories are keen to emulate.
Many have accused the Conservatives of Pork Barrel politics. This is when an area is informed it will get investment and funding, but only if it votes for the incumbent party, or perhaps as a ‘reward’ for having already done so.
To a certain extent, that’s what this is. But a lot of the new funding is going to places that are heavily Labour and will likely remain that way. However, Greater Manchester currently has the most Conservatives MPs its had since the early 1990s, picking up five at the last election. Keeping these MPs and others it gained across the so-called Red Wall will be crucial to the government maintaining its heft majority.
Burnham has been on somewhat of ‘a political journey’. Leaving Westminster and returning to his home to seek the Mayoralty led him to move to the left in terms of policy, and his rhetoric seemingly shows this.
Of course, Burnham has not ruled out a leadership bid, and many have touted him as the next Leader if he makes a return to the house of commons. Burnham was also returned as Mayor again in 2021 with an increased proportion of the vote, impressive in an already heavily Labour voting area.
Right now, Keir Starmer does not look like a threat to the Conservative party, but Burnham does. Which is potentially why these moves are being made.
Labour Needs Own its Agenda
Like taking failing railway franchises back into public ownership conceding to the moral victory of left-wing populism, investing in public transport in this way concedes to Burnham’s arguments.
On the investment increase, he said that it is welcome but not enough, some may see this as a concession on his part, not far enough from praise.
Similar things are happening in West Yorkshire, where Tracey Brabin was recently elected metro Mayor for the first time and advocated for more investment in the bus network.
It is not inconceivable that when Labour points to any future improvements to local transport in places like Greater Manchester and West-Yorkshire, the Conservatives will argue it is partly their victory as the national government-funded such improvements. These areas will continue returning Labour Mayors for some time to come, but their success won’t necessarily galvanise a coalition of voters to bring Labour back into national government.
Of course, Labour needs to be more vocal in calling this out for what it is and be clear in what it would do in its place. It also signals the need for more clarification on how it would approach English Devolution.
The Mayors are currently only a tiny step in decentralising power from Westminster – if Starmer wants to hand power down and create a federal UK, now is the time to argue with popular figures like Burnham and Brabin.
For almost five years while Corbyn was leader the political oxygen, when it wasn’t wasted on Brexit, was taken by his relentless barrage of progressive policy.
If Labour wants to gain that kind of attention again it needs to take a note from its rivals, and embrace Andy Burnham.
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