Doing politics differently? Metro-mayors and democratic renewal

Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region metro-mayors have been in power just under a year, but has political diversity and participation changed?

The three main purposes of the establishment of combined authorities and directly elected metro-mayors were respectively economic growth, public service reform and democratic renewal. Of the three, democratic renewal was always destined to be the poor cousin. When this experiment in governance is to be evaluated it is likely to be the first two which will be scrutinised and which are more easily subject to quantitative measurement.

There are arguably contradictions between the three objectives. For example, to secure economic regeneration it is inward investors, the businesses involved in the Local Economic Partnerships and the property development companies whose views will be most eagerly sought. Yet it is clear that both Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram – the elected metro-mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region respectively – were interested in the role because they were disillusioned and frustrated with Westminster politics and felt that devolution offered them a chance to do politics differently and to bring politics closer to the people who felt left behind. Yet, what evidence is there to date that the metro-mayors and their respective combined authorities in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region represent a new kind of politics? This is the question this blog sets out to answer and it does so through a consideration of two aspects: diversity and participation.

In terms of gender representation, there has been some movement towards the greater representation of women within the two combined authorities. In Greater Manchester, three out of the ten council leaders are now women and Andy Burnham also selected Baroness Beverley Hughes as Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime. Moreover, even prior to the election of Andy Burnham, the interim metro-mayor Tony Lloyd had agreed that where the portfolio-holder is male, the assistant portfolio-holder must be female in order to ensure a more gender-balanced combined authority. In Liverpool City Region where none of the council leaders are female, Steve Rotherham has tried to inject a greater gender balance into the combined authority by appointing mayoral advisors.  Of the seven mayoral advisors, six are women. In terms of the representation of ethnic minorities, however, very little progress has been made: only the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has one council leader – Councillor Rishi Shori – from an ethnic minority.

Structurally, each combined authority has approached the issue differently.  In Greater Manchester, there is a separate portfolio for equality, fairness and inclusion led by Councillor Jean Stretton and which is designed to ensure that policies will be to the benefit of everyone in Greater Manchester regardless of gender, race or age. In Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram has set up a Fair and Social Justice Advisory Board chaired by Lynn Collins, TUC Regional Secretary. The Advisory Board’s aim is to ensure that fairness is at the heart of policy and decision-making and that the combined authority and metro-mayor deliver the commitment of building a fairer and more equal city-region.

Greater diversity, however, is only one aspect of doing politics differently. Another aspect is the extent to which there are greater opportunities for participation and influence. Both Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham are holding metro-mayor question times on a monthly basis prior to each of the combined authority meetings.  These events are held in the borough in which the combined authority meeting is taking place and they are also streamlined live on Facebook to enable people to ‘attend’ virtually. While these question-times are seen as crucial by each of the metro-mayors as tools to get their messages across to people and to hear what issues are of most concern to local people, their overall reach and impact is questionable and it is likely that they are to some extent at least monopolised by special interest and lobby groups.

Another feature of the metro-mayor question times is that they highlight the extent to which the public is understandably still confused about the division of powers between the metro-mayor, the combined authority and the constituent councils. In both the Liverpool City Region and Greater Manchester metro-mayor question times, the metro-mayors are asked questions about issues over which they have little control. To some extent this is a consequence of the single executive role that raises the profile of both Burnham in Manchester and Rotherham in Liverpool. Callers to their respective radio phone-ins and attendees at the borough-based question times can raise issues that concern them yet questions from the general public are frequently based upon the misperception that the metro-mayor is an all-powerful figure. While the metro-mayors occasionally explain that a specific issue is not within their remit it is understandable that the public are not aware of these intricacies, nor can they be expected to be. One way in which the metro-mayors are responding to issues over which they have no direct responsibilities is by using their power as convenors to hold bodies to account on behalf of voters.  For example, when asked a question at the question time in Wigan on February 27th 2018 about Transpennine trains between Wigan and Manchester, Burnham declared that ‘even though I don’t have direct responsibility over the trains, I’m going to bring them into the GMCA building four times a year through the Mayor Transport Board and hold them to account on your behalf.’

One thing missing from the above analysis is the issue of class. While some attention has been paid to gender or other groups such as young people through, for example, the establishment of a Greater Manchester Youth Combined Authority, class tends to be neglected. It is not only in the outer boroughs of the Liverpool City Region and Greater Manchester that there is real deprivation and there is the danger that there is too much focus on identity politics to the neglect of the issue of social exclusion. Yet to engage in the main issues confronting the metro-mayors the most disadvantaged citizens lack political efficacy and even time to take part. Moreover, many of the preferences of ordinary citizens may be in conflict with those of the more powerful vested interests. One obvious area is in the issue of land usage where the preferences of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and the profit-driven housebuilding companies are in direct conflict, and also those waiting for long periods for social housing will be in conflict with the desire of developers to build large and, for many, unaffordable houses for sale. Another example is the clash between Highways England’s proposal to improve access to the Port of Liverpool (owned by Peel Holdings) by building a new road through Rimrose Valley Country Park rather than the tunnel proposed by the local community.  As one local leader in Sefton told us ‘I can expect to live fifteen years less than somebody in North Liverpool’ as a result of the air pollution from port traffic.

It is a paradox that those groups with the most severe problems are those least able to influence events. Yet the metro-mayors are aware of this and, for example, Andy Burnham does seek to engage with the most peripheral social groups of all, the homeless and rough-sleepers, and in conversations with them finds out the root causes of homelessness and the type of help that they require. This may be gesture politics but it serves to illustrate the obstacles to transforming a relatively excluded electorate to a fully active citizenry.

It can be argued that the small steps which have been taken so far to do politics differently are, at best, just about acceptable for the first year of the new forms of governance in the two city-regions. But the assessment must be made in the context of C.B. Macpherson’s (1977) apt claim about the vicious circle of participation whereby greater participation cannot be achieved without a prior change in social inequality but changes in social inequality cannot be achieved without a prior increase in democratic participation. This particular vicious circle has yet to be broken.

This article is the third in a series by Georgina Blakeley and Brendan Evans analysing the first year in office of the Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region metro-mayors. The first blog (November 2017) is available here and the second (January 2018) is here