By Emma Burnell / @EmmaBurnell_
There is no denying that last week’s election results were anything but a disaster for Labour. If, like me, you believe that it is important that Labour is able to fight for the people it was established to represent at every level, then you can only be horrified when so many people lose their local Labour councillors. These are the people who work tirelessly to mitigate the worst of the Tory cuts as best they can. They breathe life to community projects and make lives better. To the 382 councillors who lost their seats we can only say thank you for your service and we sincerely hope you’ll be back.
There were two bright spots among the electoral gloom. Though it was largely expected that Labour would take the Liverpool and Manchester Metro Mayor positions, this does not mean that we should simply ignore these successes and more importantly what they mean.
Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham join Sadiq Khan as probably the most prominent Labour national politicians behind Jeremy Corbyn. And unlike being leader of the opposition – a generally thankless task no matter who is performing it – they have real power and money to use to change lives, improve economies and ensure their areas thrive.
Andy and Steve’s first priorities should be to the people of the Greater Manchester and Merseyside. Andy has hit the ground running with a pledge to give up a portion of his salary to the homeless and spending his first few hours on the job on the streets hearing their stories. Steve has already invited Theresa May to Liverpool to discuss his plans to build better transport links and digital infrastructure.
But they also have a chance to make a national case about what Labour in power looks like. Our Metro mayors are now both local champions and national figures. They are the voice of their electoral area, but they are also the face of Labour making a difference in government.
As Sadiq and Ken Livingstone before him -pre-rants about Hitler- have proved, a good Mayor has a certain amount of independence from the party they serve, while also being a representative of it. Their position gives them a degree of leverage in national and international affairs which should be respected both by the government (Theresa May is reputed not to be a fan of devolution, but with many Tory mayors now elected, will have less temptation to downgrade or abolish the position) and by their parties. Labour’s Metro Mayors should be represented on the NEC alongside the positions already reserved for councillors for example. But this voice must essentially be a one-way street.
The most important thing the Labour Party can do though is to let these mayors get on with their jobs without too much national interference. Yes, they should be subject to the same rules as all other Party members – so no bringing the Party into disrepute. But they should also have the freedom and flexibility to follow a local programme that works for their area without running everything through head office or the leader.
Devolution is about putting power closer to the communities it serves. While not quite “power to the people”, it is certainly power a lot closer to the people. For this to work, those who wield that devolved power have to do so free from the diktat of Whitehall and of their party leaderships – and this is true for whoever leads Labour.
Labour has core values that unite us, no matter how easily that is forfeited in internal strife. But there are many ways to deliver on those values and those that work in London will not necessarily work in Merseyside. Steve Rotherham, Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan must plough their own furrows. Ironically it will only be by doing so that they will be able to make a national case for Labour in power.